The Garden, Chapter XV

Charlie didn’t feel ready to start looking for Maureen yet, but his mother’s advice to do so won the day.  He didn’t know yet what he would say, or how he would even say ‘hello.’  But first things first.  At the moment he had no idea where Maureen was.  He knew where her parents lived however, or at least where they had lived two years earlier, and that was less than a mile from his mother’s house.  He  knew that his best hope was to start there.

Charlie remembered their phone number, for what reason he couldn’t say. Butterflies were doing barrel rolls in his stomach as his fingers punched the numbers into his mother’s land line telephone.  He almost held his breath as the phone on the other end began to ring, but he made a conscious effort to steady himself for the moment when somebody picked up his call.  That effort paid off, and Charlie was reasonably calm by the time he realized that nobody was going to answer.  Sure enough, a voice came on saying “You have reached 821-0733.  Nobody is available at this time to answer your call.  Please leave a message at the beep and we will return your call as soon as we can.”

Charlie debated for a moment whether or not to leave a message.  If he did so, he would hot have the flexibility of a live call in which to make his case.  Perhaps his call would be unwelcome but not immediately rejected, and his speaking to a live human on the other end would give him a chance to make a case for continuing the conversation that might otherwise be lost.  On the other hand, he was now anxious to begin the process, and delay was more distasteful to him than maneuvering for advantage with a possibly reluctant ex-in law was attractive, and so he took the plunge.

“Hello.  This is Charlie Hamer.  I am in town visiting my family, and if it is at all possible I would like to speak with you while I am here.  I know that this comes as a surprise to you, but I hope very much that you will agree to a phone call or a visit.  The phone number at my mother’s house is 227-4413, and my cell is 360-415-4253.  There is not a voice recorder on my mother’s phone, but I do have one on my cell.  I hope that I will be able to speak with you soon.  Good bye.”

“There, it’s done” Charlie thought.  “They will answer or they won’t.  It’s out of my hands now.”  He placed the telephone receiver in its cradle and walked down the hall and into the living room, where his mother waited.

“They weren’t home, I guess,” he told her.  “That is, if that is even still their number.  A lot of things can happen in two years.”

“I’ll bet that they’re still there,” Elaine said.  “Our generation didn’t move around like yours does.  I think they’ll get the message.  It’s what they’ll do with it that’s the real question to me.”

“You’re probably right about that,” Charlie said.  “I don’t really know what I would try next if they won’t talk to me.  I suppose I could get in contact with her lawyer and try that angle, but I doubt that she would help.  Some sort of professional rules or something like that.”

“We could try to find her on the internet,” Elane suggested.  “Those snooper websites can find anybody.  If you want to give them $7.95 after the first free month, that is.”

Charlie chuckled at that idea.  “Mom! he said.  “You surf the internet?”

“Why, sure!” she replied.  “Why should you youngsters have all the fun?  You can find just about anything you want to know on the Web.”

Charlie laughed outright at this response.  He could still see his mother hanging clothes on a clothesline in the back yard, putting his school lunch into a paper sack and watching soap operas on their old Magnavox television in the summertime when he was out of school and home at that hour.  Now, in her late seventies, she was instructing him on how to snoop on the internet, and for only &7.95 per month!  “You can find anybody,” she continued to say,  “plus their tax and police records too.”

“You’re amazing, Mom!” he told her.

“Naw, I’m not amazing,” she replied.  “I’m pretty damn good, but not really amazing.”

They sat in the living room and visited for an hour more before Charlie began to get restless.  His business was weighing on him, and he knew that only by discovering if Maureen’s parents were really still at that number and would answer his call could he remove that weight in its entirety.  Having at least made his first attempt he felt some relief, but knowing that any moment they might call made this business so much more real now.  At last, his mother noticed his fidgeting.

“Look, Charlie.  Why don’t you go and do something?  You’re nervous as a cat at the dog pound.  You gave them my number, right?”  Charlie nodded that he had.  “OK then.  I’ll stay here and answer if they call.  I can say that you had to step out for a minute and that you’ll be right back.  I would call you then and let you know.”

That sounded like a good idea, and Charlie decided to take a walk in his old neighborhood.  He exited through the front door and began to walk north, towards southern rim of Mission Valley.  Almost immediately he was in front of the house on the corner, where the Burtons had lived.  “I wonder if they are still alive?” he thought.  “I wonder what that little girl’s doing?  I wonder if Mom could find them on the internet?  I wonder why I can’t remember a thing like what Mom told me about them, and about Dad.?”

He walked on, burning up nervous energy, and soon saw the Henning’s house.  In front of that house, on the side of a lawn that had now gone to seed, was the stump of the pine tree that he had climbed to find refuge from his troubles one day long ago.  “Jeez, why can’t I remember that?”  he asked himself.  Charlie could remember climbing that tree many times, in spite of the Hennings always chasing him out when they caught him up there.  Why couldn’t he remember that one traumatic day?

Charlie walked past Bobby Crowe’s old house and wondered what happened to him.  “I remember plenty about him,” he thought.  “I’d probably kick his punk ass if I could find him now.”  Charlie was surprised at how the resentment that he had felt against his tormentor of four decades ago rose easily into his consciousness now that he stood here in front of the house where Bobby had once lived.  “It would be a good idea to not have Mom find him!”

Charlie continued walking and soon came to the recreation center which still occupied a full block in the neighborhood.  He went into the field where some kids were throwing a frisbee and sat on one of the concrete picnic tables that had replaced the old wooden ones from when he was young.  He was sitting there, remembering times both good and bad, when the cell phone in his shirt pocket began to ring.  He pulled it out of the pocket and looked at the screen.  “PRENTISS” it said.  Charlie’s heart leapt into his throat as he pushed the place on the screen that said “Accept This Call.”

“Hello,” Charlie said, and lamely, he thought.

“Hello,” came a voice.  “Is this Charlie?”

“Yes sir, it is,”  Charlie answered.  “How are you doing?”

“Well, I suppose I’m doing well enough.  Question is, how are you doing?”

“Pretty good, I think.  And Mrs. Prentiss?  How is she doing?”

“Same as always; an angel for putting up with me.  I have to tell you that I’m very surprised to get this call.  So I ask again, how are YOU doing?  Is everything all right?”

“Yes, everything is fine sir.  I’m visiting my mother and family here for a few days.  I’m pretty busy up north but I wanted to come down here between projects.”  Charlie hesitated for just a moment at this point, and then continued.  “And, well, there is something in particular that I would like to discuss with you.”

Charlie paused for a moment, and Mr. Prentiss prompted him to continue.

“Well, this is the deal.  As you know, I had a very hard time dealing with Stevie’s accident.  I guess, really, that’s putting it too mildly.  Anyway, I finally realized that I needed help, and now I’m getting that help from a professional.  Because of that I’m getting back on my feet and I realize that even now, after all that has passed by me, there are still responsibilities that I have to my son and, who knows, maybe to your daughter as well.  I’m not trying to pick up where we left off, if that is what you’re thinking.  No, I’m trying to figure out what is the right thing to do in this situation and at this moment, and then finally do it.

Trouble is, I don’t really know what the right thing to do is.  Now, I always respected you, sir.  You always seemed to me to be the father who knew what to do.  So I was hoping that maybe I could talk with you while I’m here and ask you to help me figure this out.  If you would be willing to give me a few minutes, I would love to speak with you, and Mrs. Prentiss too, so that I can get a better idea of what helping would look like.”

After only a moment’s silence, Mr. Prentiss responded to Charlie’s request.  “We would love to speak with you Charlie.  Can you come over later on tonight?”

“You bet I can,” Charlie replied, knowing at the same time that Elaine had planned to have Clark and Emily and their families over for dinner that evening.  But it was her idea to have Charlie fast-track the process of reconnecting with the Prentisses, so he was certain that she would understand if he missed dinner with them that night.

“The only thing is that we will be with our Care Group from church until eight o’clock.  Can you come over at eight thirty?”

“Care Group?  Do you go to church now?” Charlie asked.

“Oh, yeah.  We started a couple of years ago, right after Steph – – -.  Well, right after the tough part set in.  It really didn’t have anything to do with your situation, but it was certainly in the nick of time.  Anyway, we get together and eat some wonderful food that everyone brings pot luck and we’re usually done by nine.  We could slip out and be home by eight thirty, if that would work.”

Charlie heard a murmur of conversation in the background and then Mr. Prentiss came back on the phone.  “On second thought, I suppose that you already have your own plans for this evening.  Why don’t we make it tomorrow morning for breakfast?  Maudie is already looking in the kitchen to make sure we have the fixings for pancakes and ham and the other stuff that she remembers you like.”

Mr. Prentiss’ response to Charlie’s call had relaxed his concerns completely.  He had feared that they would have considered him the author of their daughter’s misfortunes and shut the door in his face.  To his pleasant surprise they still seemed to like him and were open to communication with him.  Charlie wanted very much to press on with the main purpose of this visit to his home, but now he felt like there was space for him to connect with his own family as well.

“That sounds very good to me sir.  What time would you like for me to come over?”

“Oh, you know, I’m an early riser, so anytime after seven is fine with me.  Maudie usually has food on the table by seven thirty.  Does that sound OK?”

“Seven thirty is fine.  I’m an early riser too.  I’ll be there on the dot.”

“Bring your appetite.”

“Oh, I remember Mrs. Prentiss’ cooking.  I certainly will.  See you tomorrow then, sir.”

“You bet.  Oh, and Charlie.  It’s really been good to hear your voice.  I’m looking forward to spending some time with you tomorrow.”

Charlie pressed the disconnect button and continued to sit at the picnic table, processing the conversation that he had just concluded.  It was clear that Maureen’s parents did not harbor a grudge against him.  They could have easily held him somehow responsible for Stevie’s death and their daughter’s family meltdown, and they could have made a case against him for not taking care of his family; their daughter and grandson, after the accident.  But they did not seem to be inclined to do that.

Of course, this could be just a ruse; a friendly face designed to lure him to their house, where they could tear into him.  It wasn’t too long ago that he would have given serious thought to that possibility.  Today however, he was willing to accept Mr. Prentiss’ expression of good will as genuine and go to their house the next morning with hope for a good outcome.  “Heck,” he thought.  “Even if they do jump on me I can still try to do what I came for.”

Charlie sat at the table for a while longer, watching the frisbee throwers and some other kids shooting baskets in a court on the other side of the field.  Charlie had done those things here when he was young, but he was never really a part of the group of regulars at the rec center.  He had been too busy studying, delivering morning and evening paper routes, and working first as a laborer and then as a craftsman for a construction company in the summers, to spend much time playing.

The boys and girls his age would always be together, whether shooting baskets or playing wiffle ball or just sitting on the picnic tables smoking cigarettes.  They knew about each other’s lives and acted like some kind of surrogate family to each other, and he had never sought nor was ever invited to be a part of that family.

Bobby Crowe had been a part of that group, and that was one good reason not to want to join it.  Bobby had been a big kid for as long as Charlie had known him, and Charlie’s penchant for being more of a loner had tended to make him more of a target.  He had never been actually beaten up by Bobby, but the taunts, the shoves, the trippings and so forth were always a direct invitation to greater violence, and it was a challenge that Charlie had no interest in accepting.

As the years went by, Charlie had come to this playground less as his other activities occupied more of his attention.  The summers of intense physical work with the construction team had filled out Charlie’s previously thin frame and he had become quite muscular.  Bobby Crowe, who came into contact with Charlie less and less anyway, was a punk but he wasn’t stupid.  Well, not too stupid.  Their brief encounters at school or in the neighborhood became much more neutral events than before.  Charlie had thought from time to time about evening the score, but that seemed to be a pointless act compared with the more positive things in his life, and after he met Maureen there was no room in his mind for Bobby Crowe.

After a while Charlie’s mind returned to the present.  He had family coming to his mother’s house soon and she did not know yet if Charlie would even be there.  He punched her phone number into his cell and she answered on the first ring.

“Hey Mom,” he said.  “Looks like I’m going to the Prentiss’ house tomorrow for breakfast so I’ll be home soon.  What’s for dinner?”

“Oh, they called you on your phone!” she replied.  “Tacos.  So how did it go?”

“Better than I had hoped for.  Mr. Prentiss sounded friendly, and I think that he meant it.”

“So, does Maureen live here?  Is she going to be there too?”

“I don’t know, Mom.  He didn’t mention Maureen, I think.  Not much anyway, if he did at all.  No, I don’t think that she’ll be there.  We didn’t discuss a whole lot,  which is OK by me.  I don’t really like talking on the telephone anyway.”

“OK.  I can take a hint.  I’ll get off the phone.  The kids are going to be over in about an hour, and we’ll be eating right away.”

Charlie laughed at his mother’s quip and said ‘good bye.’  Tacos.  That called for beer and iced tea, depending upon one’s age and preference.  He remembered that Moe’s Liquors once stood on the corner of First St. and Washington, but there wasn’t the smallest likelihood that it still existed.  He had seen a small market on his walk, and he retraced his steps to that market and purchased two six packs of Coronas and a box of tea bags.  These he carried the short distance back to his mother’s house.

Elaine was in the kitchen when he returned.  He quickly put the beer into the refrigerator and placed a large pan of water on to make a pitcher of tea.  He then busied himself helping his mother to cut, chop and cook all of the ingredients necessary for a taco feast.  They were finished and Charlie had time to open a Corona and sit down before the first of the crowd arrived.  Soon after that, the Hamer home was bursting with family, from Elaine down to the several grandchildren, the oldest of whom was pregnant with her first child.

Charlie and his brother and sister gave affectionate hugs, an occurrence which surprised them somewhat.  Charlie was new to this hugging thing, and it would take some getting used to.  Introductions were made to grandchildren and before too long the dining room was filled with the happy babble of a family enjoying a vast meal and a reservoir brimming with fondness and joy.

Perhaps the happiest person in the room was Juliette Hamer, the ‘earth muffin’ wife of Clark who had suggested to Charlie that he should get outside of his apartment and reconnect with the soil.

“That was good advice,” he had told her at a moment when his mouth was empty of taco.  “In addition to growing some good and free food, I’ve met some people who have been a big help to me.”

“Who’s taking care of it while you’re loafing down here?” Emily asked.

“A very odd piece of work named Walt,” Charlie replied  “He’s a crusty old Vietnam vet who you wouldn’t want you children to be around, yet he works his own plot and mine too while I’m gone so that he can give the food to the county food bank.  I don’t think you would like him very much; not at first anyway, but he’s one of the best people that I know.”

“And just how many people DO you know?” Clark asked .

“Oh, let’s see.”  Charlie began counting on his fingers.  “I guess twelve people who I talk with much at all.”

Clark looked impressed with that number.  “That’s a heck of an improvement over the last time we saw you up in Washington.”

“You have no idea,” Charlie told him.  “Really, you don’t.  There’s no way that you could.”

He then looked directly at Juliette.  “And your advice came at the time when I needed it the most.  A couple of my new friends are religious people, and they talk about blessings.  Well, I haven’t had a lot of those the past few years but it looks like my luck is changing.  Or maybe it isn’t luck.  Anyway, it all started with your suggestion that I get into the dirt, and so I think that if anything or anyone has been blessing me lately, it’s you who’s leading the parade.”

The people sitting around the scratched old family table were silent for a moment, and then Clark raised his beer in preparation for a toast to Charlie’s rebirth into the ranks of the living.  Charlie saw that move coming and waved it off.

“No, man.  Don’t raise your beer to me.  Raise it to that lovely woman you’re married to.”  And with that Charlie lifted his beer in the direction of Juliette.  Four beers, two iced teas, and a mix of sodas and glasses of milk were lifted in the direction of a surprised and embarrassed Juliette Hamer.

Clark leaned over and kissed his wife’s cheek before looking back at Charlie and saying softly “Bravo.  Well done little brother.  Can I toast you now?”

The toast was received and soon the room was once again filled with the happy chatter of family eating too much food and making up for too long of an absence.  Elaine Hamer sat back in her chair from time to time and looked at her brood.  This much joy had not visited her dining room, or any other part of her house, for a very long time.  In fact, she was not sure if she had ever seen it there before.  Several times she sat silent, not because she had nothing to say but because she feared that her voice would tremble if she dared to try and say it.

After dinner and the clean-up, which was performed by Clark and Charlie and the eldest son of Emily, the family spent some more time together before parting to return to their lives.  Charlie talked with his mother for a short while longer and then retired to his room.

Lying on his old twin bed in the darkness he wondered how much of the life that he had lived in this house was locked away from his memory.  He had not lain in this bed for – how many years?  It had been a lot of them.  Now he lay here after spending an evening with his family that was unlike any he could remember, and the glow of this evening accompanied him into a deep and untroubled sleep.

Charlie’s internal alarm clock went off well before seven thirty the next morning.  Elaine continued to sleep and Charlie knew that a good meal awaited him at the Prentiss residence, so he dressed quickly and silently and began to walk the mile or so towards the Prentiss’ home.

Charlie had walked this path many times before, usually taking as long as possible to walk Maureen home from his house.  He thought about those times while he strode down the sidewalk, not nostalgically glorifying them, but simply reflecting on how things were so much simpler then, and what he would do differently if he could replay those days again.  He slowed his pace so that he could arrive on the front porch of the Prentiss’ at seven thirty, sharp, which is exactly what he did.

“Come in, son,” Mr. Prentiss said when he opened the front door.  Charlie did as he was asked, and shook the hand that was extended to him.  “We’re very glad to see you.  Maudie!” he shouted over his shoulder.  “Charlie’s here.”

“I’ll be out in a minute,” came a voice from the kitchen.  “See if he wants some coffee.”

Charlie said that he would love some coffee and before Mr. Prentiss could move to get it Maude Prentiss came out of the kitchen with a steaming pot of coffee and three cups.  She placed those items on the table and gave Charlie a long hug.  This was more than Charlie had expected or hoped for, and he had to fight to keep his composure.

Warren Prentiss refused to talk business until after breakfast, and soon all three were busy packing away a small mountain of pancakes and ham and eggs and fruit.  “I’m going to be big as a house if I keep this stuff up” Charlie thought as he wiped his fingers with a napkin and placed it on his empty plate.  The Prentisses were also finished, and Warren Prentiss suggested that they clear the table later and get down to business in the living room.  Maude and Charlie agreed and soon they were seated in comfortable chairs in that room that still looked nearly the same as Charlie remembered it.  Without wasting any time, Charlie launched into the reason for his visit.

“Like I said yesterday, I’m trying to make some things right that I dropped the ball on when Stevie died.  I can’t say that I know exactly what making things right  looks like, but I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t look anything like the last few years of my life, so I’m asking other people, healthier people, for help in doing it.”

“Well, you look like you’re off to a good start,” Maude said.  “I have to say that the picture of you that Maureen gave us was a whole lot different than what I am seeing now.”

“Maureen’s picture was probably pretty accurate,” Charlie replied.  “It’s only been a couple of months since I began to climb up out of a dark place, and I’ve been very lucky to have met some good people who have helped me on my way.”

“I’m not sure that luck has anything to do with it,” Warren said.  “But continue.”

“Well, I’m seeing a counselor.  A professional.  She’s really one of the smartest and most kind people who I’ve ever met.  Anyway, she suggested that I try to get in contact with Maureen in order to find out if there was a way to be a father to Jack, given the circumstances.  Another friend suggested that, without trying to write a fairy tale ending to my story, Maureen and I might have a need to help each other in some way to move on with our own separate lives.

I expect that Maureen is doing all right; she always was a stronger person through all of this than I was, but that’s basically what this visit is all about, and I wanted to get your advise and opinion on it.  I would also like to ask you to find out for me if Maureen is interested in any of this.

Warren and Maude Prentiss were quiet for a minute after Charlie quit speaking.  Warren seemed to be picking at a splinter in his though, wrinkled hand while Maude raised the now-cold cup of coffee to her lips and drained the last sip.  They looked at each other quickly, and then Warren  looked back at Charlie and answered him.

“Well, we spoke with Maureen last night and she said that she has no desire to see you.”

Charlie’s heart dropped into the soles of his feet.  He had known that this was a possibility, but hearing it straight and direct was like getting hit in the chest by a truck.  As he pondered what this refusal might mean to him Warren continued.

“We told her that you would be coming over here today and that we were going to share a meal with you.  You had always been welcome in our house before and unless you gave us some reason to change that policy you would continue to be welcome here.

I also told her what you said yesterday about getting help with your troubles, and that you were interested in being a presence in Jack’s life it it seemed like he needed it.  I’ll tell you now that I told her that I agreed with you on that idea.   Anyway, she said ‘no.’  I asked her if she would keep an open mind about the idea, for now anyway, and allow me to speak with her again after we met with you and could make our own assessment of the sincerity of your intentions.  She agreed to do that.”

Charlie was stunned by the frankness of Warren Prentiss.  He had always been a very direct sort of person, but Charlie had forgotten how he could cut right through the clutter and get to the heart of a matter.  As he reflected on this Warren continued to speak.

“Charlie, I’ve only spent an hour with you but I feel like you are on the right track.  I didn’t see you when you and Maureen were going through the aftermath of Stephanie’s accident, but I trust my daughter’s account of things and I like the path that you seem to have chosen.  Being smart enough to ask for help, even if it seems like you’re shutting the barn door after the horses have gotten out, is something that a lot of people won’t do, and it says a lot, to me at least, that you’re doing it.”

“Thank you, sir,” Charlie said.  “It means a lot to me that you feel that way.  I knew that Maureen might respond like that so it doesn’t really surprise me much.  I’m very disappointed, but not surprised,  I would appreciate it very much if you would just tell her that I am more sorry than I can express for how I wasn’t equipped to be there for her and Jack when I had the chance, and that my only intention now was to be a help if I could in any way.”

“Now hold your horses, Charlie,”  Warren said.  “I wasn’t quite finished.  Maureen said that she has no desire to see you right now.  She didn’t say anything about later, though.  You’ve sort of dropped in out of the blue, you know, and it might take a while for the idea of you being alive again to sink in.”

  “Being alive again,” Charlie thought.  “Yeah, that pretty much describes it.  Or maybe even being fully alive for the first time.”

“I told her that you would come over here and that I would see what I thought about you, and that I would speak to here again after I do that and tell her what I think.  Well, I’m going to do what I said I would do, and I’m going to tell her that I think you’re making an honest attempt to “do the right thing” as you say, even if you don’t know what that right thing is.  I’ll also tell her that I believe she should at least speak with you and give you a chance.”

Charlie’s thoughts were flying in at least a dozen different directions and it was hard for him to think, and he told Warren of that.  “I’m feeling kinda tongue-tied, Dad” he said, relapsing to the title that he had used long ago when addressing Maureen’s father.  “I appreciate what you’ve just said.  God knows I can’t thank you enough for that.  On some level I can’t even believe that I’m sitting here and that you’re talking to me at all, while on another I’m not surprised that Maureen might slam the door and close out this part of both of our lives.  It’s exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.  I will tell you one thing though, and you can share this with Maureen if you think it’s wise to do so.

This is the last time that I will bother her.  If she does not want to speak with me after your next contact with her, I won’t make a pest out of myself.  There’ll be no stalking ex-husband or any of that stuff.  If she wants this to end once and for all time; if she’s got her life going in a good direction and does not need me being a distraction to hold her back, it will end right here.  If she wants anything else, whatever that might be, I will be eager to pursue it.  Your word, sir will be the final word for me.”

Warren and Maude sat still and quiet after Charlie quit speaking, and the three of them sat motionless and in their own thoughts for what seemed like an eternity.  What Maureen’s parents might be thinking Charlie had no idea, and he wasn’t trying to guess.  His own thoughts were of Jack and Maureen; what he owed to Jack, at least, and to himself.  He thought of D’Andra and her wise, kind listening and advice.  He also thought of Billy, who knew a wound when he saw one and what to do with it.  Finally he decided that his business here was finished, and that any further lingering would be an imposition and an intrusion.

“Well, sir.  Ma’am.  I think it’s probably time for me to go.  I thank you for the breakfast,”  he looked directly at Maude.  “You know that I always thought you cooked the best meals in San Diego.  I also thank you for your kindness towards me.  I couldn’t complain if it had turned out otherwise.  And I thank you for your willingness to speak to Maureen in behalf of my attempt to help Jack, and maybe her and even myself too.  Please let her know that I only want the best for them both, even if that means that I disappear again forever.”

Warren was not able to say anything in return.  He extended his hand and pulled Charlie into a bear hug.  When he let go Maude took her turn, and she found her voice.”

Charlie, like we’ve already told you, you will always be welcome in this house.  When you get home, call us from time to time, or write to us even.  We don’t do any of that fancy electronic stuff.  Let us know how you’re getting on, and how we can pray for you.  No matter how this all works out, we will always be your friends, and you can always consider this your second home.”

With that, Maude gave Charlie a hug and then let him go.  His eyes lingered on this amazing couple for a few moments longer before he nodded to each and turned toward the door.  Without looking back, for fear that he would begin to cry like a baby, he stepped through the door and out into the warmth of a San Diego summer day.

Charlie had no idea how long he walked before he finally returned to his mother’s house.  He remembered walking along Park Boulevard, past the museums and art gallery in Balboa Park, over the high bridge that had the unfortunate name of ‘suicide bridge’ when he was young because of the many people who had found it a convenient place to put an end to their earthly troubles.  He remembered his own appointment with the middle of a bridge, and as he looked down at the traffic flowing under him far below he thought about how foreign that thought now seemed to him.

He turned at Cedar and walked the long, straight street back to his mother’s home.  She was sitting in her chair, pretending to have been reading, while Charlie knew that she had been gazing out the window, waiting for him.  He said hello and went to the refrigerator to get one of the last two beers that remained from the night before.  He opened the brew and sat down on the sofa opposite where his mother sat waiting.

“Well, how did it go?” she asked, point-blank.

Charlie took a long swig from the beer and then replied.  “It’s complicated.  The Prentisses are just like I remember them.  They’re on my side, I think, although of course they’re on Maureen’s side too.  Maureen doesn’t want to talk to me though.  Maybe not now, or maybe not ever.  I don’t know for sure.”

Charlie took another swig of beer and sat back into the sofa.  Elaine, as usual, wanted more details.  “So, how is Maureen doing?  Where does she live?  Why won’t she talk to you?  What all did the Prentisses say?”

“You know Mom, they didn’t say anything at all about Maureen.  I hadn’t thought about that before, but they didn’t.  I think they did that on purpose.  If Maureen wants to talk to me, she can tell me all of that stuff.  The Prentisses just talked about me and them and what I’m trying to do.”

“Well, I think that’s a shame,” Elaine said.  “They should have told you more about her.”

“I don’t think so Mom.  I think they did just the right thing.  They’re going to speak to her again and if she’s still opposed to the idea, I’ve promised to stay clear of her life.  And Jack’s too.  Under those circumstances, I think that they were on the right track.”

Elaine fluttered over that idea for a while but Charlie’s obvious contentment with it eventually smoothed her ruffled feathers.  Charlie talked his mother into joining hem in his rented car to drive around and see the city that had changed so much since he had lived there.  From Hillcrest to Alpine, and then back to Del Mar on the coast they drove and talked of anything that entered their heads.  Charlie stopped for ice cream cones here and donuts there, which Elaine loved, and ended with a dinner at a seafood place in Point Loma.

It was evening when they returned, and Elaine soon excused herself and retired to bed.  Charlie had the last beer while sitting in the back yard and watching what few stars could shine through the light pollution of San Diego at night.  His phone was in his shirt pocket, where he could instantly reach it should it ring.  It didn’t ring.

Finally Charlie went inside, took a long shower and stretched out on the bed.  It was a warm, humid night, but he chose to shut the vent that allowed cooled air into his room.  He opened the two windows and lay on top of his bed, listening to the crickets outside his window and distant traffic noise.  The emotional exertion that he had expended this day crept upon him and before he had lain on his bed for ten full minutes he fell into a dreamless and restful slumber.

The Garden, Chapter XIV

Charlie glanced out the window of the Boeing 737 as it flew past Long Beach, California.  He had brought a book, thinking that he might kindle an interest in reading on the two and a half hour flight from Portland to San Diego.  That plan didn’t work out however.  He had never been much of a reader before and it didn’t look like that was going to change any time soon.  The book remained in his lap as he flew south, back to the town where he was born and where he hoped to continue stitching his life back together.  His mind was free to roam as he sat back as far as the seat would allow, and he used that freedom to review the past three weeks.

The memorial service for Duane had been harder on him than he expected.  LuAnn looked drawn, and more frail than her normally thin frame usually looked.  Her eyes were red, as if her tears had tattooed her grief into her flesh.  The smoker’s cough was worse, suggesting long hours of finding solace in those packs of death instead of sleeping.  Charlie had expected LuAnn to be above grief such as he had felt after losing Stevie.  Why she should be any more impervious to the effects of losing a loved one than he had been, he couldn’t say.

LuAnn was surprised to see him there at the church, and when she did she put her arms around his neck and her head against his shoulder, gently sobbing and unwilling to let go for several minutes.  Perhaps it was because she knew about Charlie’s own dance with death, and she felt a kinship with a fellow sufferer.

All that Charlie felt at first was awkwardness,  This was something that he had never been able to do in his life, and his impulse was to disengage from the embrace and leave the church as quickly as possible.  That is what he would have done at any time before the last two months.

 

On this day however, he had memories of his conversations with LuAnn, with D’Andra, with Rachael and Billy.  Charlie knew that it was important that he stand and offer consolation to his friend, even if he had no way of knowing if he was doing anything the right way or the wrong way,  so he stood and held LuAnn’s thin and softly shaking body against his own.

He thought of the weight and health that he had added to his own body the past few months and wished that he could simply transfer some of that to LuAnn if only he could hold her long enough.  And perhaps something like that did happen.  When at last LuAnn released her grip around his neck and stepped back away from him she had ceased to sob or tremble.

“Now I know how you were feeling, Charlie.  I think I understand you better now than I ever did before,” she told him.

“You probably do,” he replied.  “And so you should also know that we can recover from it, with a little help from others.  Whatever you need, and whenever you need it, just call on me.  Remember.  Whatever it is.”

Other friends and family then surrounded LuAnn and she went to sit in the front of the church.  Charlie went to the back row and took his place between Jason and Tank.  Jason openly expressed his discomfort at being surrounded by a bunch of people who believed in fairy tales.  Tank was a little bit more comfortable, although he was Catholic and felt awkward in a Protestant church.

 

“In my community, Latino and Catholic were like saying the same thing” Tank told him.  “This here, it’s kinda like the same as being in a Catholic church, but at the same time it’s all different too.”

“So, how did you come by the name of Tank?” Charlie asked before the service started.

“Well, I was always bigger than the other kids in my neighborhood, and they began to call me ‘El Tanque.’”

Charlie looked at Tank uncomprehendingly.

“”El Tanque” he repeated.  “You know, The Tank.  Like a Sherman tank.  Well, it just sorta stuck.  You know what?  I like it.  Who’s gonna mess around with a guy named El Tanque?”

Charlie acknowledged the wisdom of that, and soon the service began.  Jason fidgeted and looked like he might bolt at any minute, while Tank sometimes said something softly in Spanish and did that crossing thing that Catholics do between head and chest and their two shoulders.

Charlie’s attention, though, was mostly on the speaker.  He guessed that he was a priest or pastor, or whatever they called him, and he listened carefully as that person spoke of a victory over death, of a place where Duane was whole and without pain in his leg and things like that.  He spoke of death not being final, but instead being the beginning of a new life, and how God was present here in this world of suffering and there in the next world where suffering ceased to exist, and was tying the two together and making all things make sense in the end.

Charlie thought of Stevie not as the pale, battered corpse that he had been called to view in the Clasp County Morgue, or the body thumping up against a pier in the middle of the Columbia River imploring him to jump and join her.  No, if this man was right, Stevie was now an even happier and more perfect model of a beautiful person than the one that he had previously adored, and was only waiting until he could join her in his own natural time.  That picture gave Charlie a chill, and he wished desperately that this message was the truth.

  “I’lll have to bounce this off of the guys at the Key and Lock,”  Charlie told himself.  He knew what Walt would think of it, and was pretty sure that Billy would not be sold on that idea either.  Dom, Ted and Joe however might have another point of view.

  “Rachael!” he thought.  “I’ll have to speak to her about this.  She’s more into this stuff than anyone I know.  I’ll see how she views this idea.”

But he didn’t get a chance to do that before his trip to San Diego.  Now that he had decided to make that trip he applied himself with even more energy than usual to the task of completing his remodel job for Carolyn.  He was on the job at precisely nine in the morning and worked with little more than a lunch break if there was enough to do in a single day.  At the end of two weeks after the memorial service he was dusting tile and countertops, adjusting the level on the gas range, and giving the cabinet doors their last swing open and shut to ensure smooth motion and balance.  Carolyn was very pleased with his work.

“Charlie, this is better than I ever imagined that it could be,” she said as she took her first walk through the completed project.  “This is exactly what I wanted.  I feel as if Mom could walk through that door at any moment.”

“I’m glad that you like it,” Charlie replied.  “And that’s not just blowing smoke.  I really do appreciate that you took a chance on me when I didn’t look like such a good horse to bet on.  Your confidence in me gave me back some confidence in myself, and that was worth more than the pay itself.  Well, maybe by only a little bit.”

Carolyn just looked at Charlie for a moment, wondering where that thought had come from.  She had worked with Charlie for nearly a month, off and on, and he was not given to expressing thoughts like that.  Charlie could sense her puzzlement.

“I learned about that stuff from my counselor,” he said with a laugh.  “I don’t usually think up smart stuff like that on my own.”

Carolyn laughed with him and assured him that her confidence had been amply repaid.

“And speaking of pay,” she said, “here’s your final draw.”  She handed him a check which signified her satisfaction that the job was finished.

Charlie thanked her and said “You know, I’m a little bit sad that this is finished.  I have really enjoyed working with Luke and you, and this was the first job that I’ve had in a while that was actually fun again.  I hope that it can stay like that for me now.  I’m guessing that it will.”

“I hope so too,” Carolyn said.  “And while were on the subject, do you have any other work lined up now?”

“Yes,” he replied.  “I’m converting a garage into a family room over in Parker’s Landing.  I’ll start in maybe two weeks.”

“Oh,” Carolyn responded.  “Well, the reason I asked is because I want to make you a proposition.  Have you got time to sit down for a few minutes?”

Charlie agreed and sat at his usual place at the table, which now rested closer to the dining area window and farther away from sink and stove.  Carolyn sat down opposite him and launched directly into the topic which she had in mind.

“I’ve told you a little about my work Charlie, how I purchase houses and renovate them to a level such that I can make a good profit and still give the buyer a good home.”  Charlie nodded and Carolyn continued.  “And I’ve also told you that I am not entirely satisfied with the general contractor whom I usually use for this work.  Since I began helping you on this project I’m beginning to notice how he cuts corners, does some things ‘good enough,’ and simply doesn’t pay attention to details.  Not the way that you do anyway.  When I all him out on something, I get a look that I don’t like.  Oh, he does what I tell him, but there’s no real respect for the work, as far as I can see, and there’s no respect for me either, I think.

So what I’m thinking is that I would like to replace him, and if you would be interested, I would like to hire you.  If you would like to general the whole deal, that would be great.  If you would rather work alone, and just do some of my work, that would be OK too.  Either way, I would like for you to still work for me in some capacity.  I trust your work and I appreciate the way you respect me.  As a woman, and still relatively new to the business that I’m in, both of those things  mean a lot to me.”

Charlie didn’t take long to accept Carolyn’s offer.  He could fulfill his obligations to the remodel at Parker’s Landing easily enough while preparing to take over the construction end of Carolyn’s business.  He would begin immediately as a consultant, supervising the work that was already underway, which would release Carolyn to find more houses which showed promise of being acquired and profitably resold.

“There is one thing though,” Charlie said.  “Next week I will be flying to San Diego for the weekend, and maybe a little bit longer if needed.  It is very important to me that I make this trip.  Once I return I should have no distractions other than a short hunting trip in August.  I’m taking a friend who’s got a disability, so it won’t be a long one.”

Carolyn smiled broadly at him when she answered.  “You enjoy your trip to San Diego, and it just figures that you’re taking a disabled guy on a hunting trip.  You know, you really have a heart for other people Charlie, and it shows all over you.”

Charlie blushed at this unexpected praise and replied “You may not have thought that about me for most of my life.”

“Well, maybe you’re right.  But this model of Charlie Hamer is the only one that I know, and this is what I see.”

They spoke further about Charlie’s new position, which was to begin immediately and with pay, and Charlie told her of Jason.  “He’s a guy who has been homeless, I think, since he got out of the Army.  Or nearly that long.  He’s now getting his life back together too.”  And then he asked her approval of giving him a chance on her work.  Carolyn just laughed and said “Oh, yeah.  This guy who never had a heart for people!  Of course you can give him a chance on my work.”

At last Charlie stood to leave.  He loved the feelings that he had experienced here in this kitchen with this sharp and compassionate person.  But it was time to attend to other things.  Charlie walked to the door and promised to be ready in the morning to begin supervision of the work of her contractor.  At the doorway Carolyn stood until he had cleared the storm door and was prepared to close it, and then spoke once again to him.

“Oh, and Charlie.”

“Yes’” he replied.

“I just want to thank you for sleeping in your truck while the exterior wall was open.  That was very sweet of you and I felt very protected.”

Charlie’s jaw dropped and he turned bright crimson as he realized that he hadn’t been nearly as clever as he had thought.  He recovered quickly though and said with an embarrassed smile “Well, I had to keep you safe so that I could get paid.”  They both laughed and Charlie drove away feeling something like ecstasy.

That feeling of elation had not entirely worn off as the day arrived for Charlie to board the plane to San diego.  He had expected that he would be nervous about flying to his old home to begin the process of trying to renew contact with Maureen and Jack, but the nerves were not nearly what he had expected.  The events of the last three months had made a huge difference on Charlie, and he viewed the journey that he was now on with a mix of anxiety and excitement, in what ration and proportion he wasn’t entirely sure.

As the airplane began to make its descent toward Lindbergh Field he decided that excitement was winning the contest.  Beach communities passed underneath him and now he could see the greatly changed skyline of downtown San Diego.  His heart began to beat just a little faster, and when the wheels touched the ground an unexpected sensation of being home greeted him.

Charlie’s mother had offered to pick him up at the airport but he had declined.  “No, Mom.  I’ll want my own wheels,” he had told her, and she was too excited about having her son visiting as if from among the dead to offer any resistance.  It didn’t take twenty minutes for him to be in a car and driving up the hill towards the Hillcrest neighborhood, and home.

Elaine Hamer was on the front porch waiting for Charlie before the car rolled to a stop two houses down the street from her residence.  Charlie knew that she would be sitting in a chair in front of the big picture window and watching for him, and so he wasn’t surprised at her greeting.

“Hi Mom,” he said as if he was just getting home from school.  Mrs. Hamer couldn’t say anything back; she just softly clapped her hands again and again as he walked up the flagstone path from the sidewalk to the house and mounted the stares to the porch.  When he arrived at the top she threw both hands into the air and wrapped her arms around her son.

Charlie had begun to learn the art of the hug and was able to return her embrace, which lasted longer than all of their previous embraces combined, he thought.  At length she commented that he must be hungry, which in fact he was. She ushered him into his old home for a lunch that would have satisfied three Charlie Hamers.

Finally, after eating and stowing his suitcase in his old bedroom, he sat down in the living room and began to get down to the point of his trip.

“So, Mom,” he began.  “I’m going to take this first day easy and relax right here.  I might take a walk in the neighborhood, or if you have any small repairs that are needed I could probably take care of them.  But tomorrow I’m going to start trying to find Maureen and Jack.  Have you been in touch with them at all, or with their parents?”

“No,” I haven’t seen Maureen or Jack in years, and I’m frankly unhappy about that.  I liked Maureen, and Jack is my grandson, after all.  I would have thought that I would get a little consideration”

Charlie was surprised to learn that there was another casualty in this affair; that there was another bleeding wound.  He considered carefully what to say next.

“Well, Mom, I think you have a right to be upset.  But I don’t believe that anything was done as an intentional slight to you.  Maureen liked you too, and her withdrawing from contact with you just shows how hurt she was by this whole thing.  Maybe if I can start a little healing, things can loosen up and you can reconnect too.”

And then an idea that Charlie hadn’t expected occurred to him.  “You know, Mom, this affair was probably as hard on Maureen as Dad leaving us was on you.  Maybe it was even harder for her, since at least all of us were still alive.  Do you think that’s possible?”

Elaine quit rocking her chair.  There was no expression on her face that Charlie could read.  She simply stared out the window for what seemed like several minutes, but was actually much less than that.  Finally, she began to rock her chair again slightly, and then looked at her son.

“Yes, I suppose that is possible.  Very possible.  I hadn’t thought of it in that context, but it could be.  The circumstances were very different though, so I would have to think about that.”

“How so, Mom.  How were they different?”

Charlie and his mother had never discussed his father before; he had never asked and she had never brought up his name.  In fact, Charlie realized, he didn’t even know his father’s name!  Mrs. Hamer thought a minute more and then spoke to Charlie on this topic for the first time.

“Everything that happened to your family was an accident, son.  Stephanie’s death was not your fault.  It wasn’t her fault either, and it damn sure wasn’t Maureen’s fault.  Sometimes when you roll life’s dice you get sevens and sometimes you get snake eyes.  Like the saying goes; ‘shit happens.’  Well, it happened to you.  I’ll not criticize how you handled it either, since I haven’t walked an inch in your shoes, much less a mile.  I guess I handled my grief a little better, but like I said, mine was different.  What went on in our house was no accident.”

Elaine quit speaking and stared back out the big window.  Charlie sat quietly on the sofa.  It was the same sofa that he would lie on as a child when he was sick.  He would watch the television and sleep, and wait until his body began to heal enough for him to keep down chicken with rice soup and Jello with cottage cheese and pineapple chunks in it.  He thought of that healing, and how he hoped that it would be replayed here once again. Elaine continued to look out the window, and at last Charlie prompted her to continue.

“So,” he said softly.  “So how was it different, Mom?  If you want to tell me, that is.”

Elaine looked back at her son, and in a low and soft but clear voice and with dry eyes began to speak.  “I kicked him out of the house.”

Charlie was shocked.  “I thought that he left to play the high roller,” he said.

“Oh, he was a high roller all right,” Elaine replied.  “He made good money.  Always did.  And he could flash a big wad any time that he liked.  But he was a player too.  He wasn’t satisfied with having a wife and a family and a home, and he wasn’t particularly concerned with keeping it a secret from me either.  He was not usually mean, but he really didn’t care about us at all.  We gave him a veneer of respectability, but I got tired of being used as a prop on his stage.”

Charlie was shocked to learn this about his father.  He didn’t know why he was shocked, exactly, but this was not the picture that he had expected.  He wondered what else he had wrong, and pressed his mother for more information.

“I was asked by my counsellor – oh, yes.  I’m seeing a professional who’s helping me to get my life back together.  So I was asked about my relationship with my father, and I realized that I don’t remember anything about him, really.  She thinks it might be good for me to know something about him; it might help me to get myself sorted out.  If you don’t mind talking about it, could you share some memories with me?”

Well, I suppose that I don’t mind.  Not really,” she said.  “But I don’t get any pleasure out of it.  Your father usually ignored you and the other kids, but you most of all.  You were the youngest and I think he was tired of kids by the time that you came along.  You also had an independent streak that irked him.  He always wanted to be the star of the show, even if he didn’t have a show worth watching, and you didn’t worship him enough, I guess.  He would push you to do things that you didn’t want to do.”

Things like what, Mom?”

“Well, I do you remember Bobby Crowe?”  Charlie nodded in the affirmative.  “You remember how he used to bully you?  Well, your father knew that you were not an aggressive kid and he said that he was going to “make a man out of you.”  So he took you up to the playground one day when he saw Bobby there and told you to go stand up to him.”

“Shit, I don’t remember anything like that!”

“Well, it happened.  You didn’t want any part of it but he wasn’t going to let you leave until you stood up to Bobby.”

“So what happened?  I don’t remember ever getting into a fight with Bobby.  He pushed me around until I graduated from high school, but I don’t remember a fight.”

“That’s because there wasn’t one.  Your brother, Clark, saw what was going on and came home and told me.  I went up to the playground and intervened.  While he was explaining himself to me you slipped away and climbed up in the big pine tree that grew in front of the Hennings’ house and stayed there until nightfall.”

Charlie declared that he did not remember any such thing.

“Well it’s all true,” she said.  “Chet always insisted on having dinner at four thirty in the afternoon, and when you didn’t come home until nearly dark he was mad, but I told him that if he said one word to you, well, let’s just say that he was in our bedroom pouting when you got home.

And then there was the time in the back yard.  We had guests over for a barbecue.  You remember the Burtons who lived on the corner?”

“Again, Charlie shook his head in the negative.”

“Well, they moved when you were seven or so.  Anyway, he was fiddling around with Mrs. Burton then, or maybe he hadn’t gotten that far yet and was still trying to impress her.  Anyway, you and Clark and Emily and their little girl, I can’t remember her name, were playing in the yard while Chet was cooking.  You threw a dirt clod up into the air for some silly but innocent reason and it came down on that little girl’s head.  It didn’t hurt her really, there was no blood or even a bump, but it scared her and she started to squeal like an angry tomcat.  Chet took off his belt and lowered your pants right there in front of everybody and whipped you until you nearly passed out.  You don’t remember that either?”

Charlie shook his head again to signify that he did not remember, and he now began to wonder how much more he had suppressed, and what D’Andra would make of this.  His mother began to talk again though and interrupted his thought.

“I didn’t know what I would do if I left him.  I had no skill that I could use in the labor force.  A lot of women were in that position back then.  I felt powerless, and as much a victim as you were.  I thought that I just had to be quiet and take it.  That day though, I began to wake up.

On that day I finally told him that that was enough.  I pulled your pants back up and took you into the house, and I made you a dinner in there.  He was really mad at me that night, and I thought that he might start in on me too.  He had been drinking that day and continued to do so into the night.  I think he passed out before he could get to that point though, and he forgot the whole thing by the next day.

Mr. Burton finally learned about the affair and they left that house on the corner.  I don’t know if they divorced, but they probably did.  Mr. Burton was a pretty big man, but your father moved in higher circles and knew people, so he simply came over one day and cussed Chet out and we never saw that family again.”

Charlie’s head was spinning by all of this information that was entirely new to him, and he pressed on to learn more about this man who was a total stranger to him.

“So, how did his leaving come about?” he asked.

“Well like I said, he didn’t just leave.  I kicked his ass out of the house.  I almost kicked it right out the door.  By the time that you were finishing elementary school I had had enough.  He was usually careful enough to not do anything that would show up on a police blotter but I had no guarantee that we were safe, so I went to our friends, the Turpins, the Essexes, and the O’Leerys, and I borrowed enough money to hire a good divorce lawyer.  In no time he had Chet out the front door with nothing but his clothes.

Our friends were more than happy to help.  They had watched him over the years and knew that he was trouble.  He could be a charmer when he wanted to, and we had friends, but making friends and keeping friends was two different things.  Soon enough they could see his true colors.  They swore under oath about the things they had witnessed, and this house, and those exceedingly ‘generous’ alimony and child support checks?”  My lawyer wrung them out of his cheap hide, and the judge smiled when he dropped the gavel on him.”

Elaine then turned her head and looked back out the window.  There was a glitter in her eye and her jaw was set so that Charlie doubted that he could open it with his wrecking bar.

“So I’m really confused now about something, Mom.  After he left I would sometimes see you sad, and I didn’t know what in the world I could do about it.  I thought you were sad because it was an anniversary or a birthday or something.  What was that really all about?”

“You were actually right about those times.  They were anniversaries and so forth; days that were special to me.”

“But, with all of that history, why did they make you sad?”

Elaine turned and looked directly at Charlie and said “On those days I remembered the dreams that I had when Chet and I first met and married.  I remembered how a girl from a poor family of Okies who fled the dust bowl and came to California met her Prince Charming.  He would come into a restaurant where I was working my first and only job on his lunch break.  I remembered moving into my first home of my own, my first dance, my first sex.  Oh, yes.  Don’t look so scandalized.  How do you think you got here?

I thought that I had moved into my best daydream, but it was not long after you were born that I learned that I’d moved into my worst nightmare.  I remembered the day we met, our first date, when he proposed to me and when we married.  His birthday, your birthday, and Clark’s and Emily’s.  Each one of those days had once been a blessing to my heart, and later became a bitter epitaph to my dead dreams of how it was supposed to be.”

Charlie was stunned and sat in silence as he tried to process all that he had just heard.  He had believed that his father had been a non-factor in his life and now had learned that he had been a terror to him.  He had believed too that his mother was abandoned and lonely.  Instead, she was the victorious survivor who cherished her freedom from the oppressive hand of this faceless father of his.

“So Mom, I’ve been feeling guilty lately because I never could help you when I saw you were down.  I’m thinking now that you were down, but in a lot different way than I thought you were.  I don’t know now if there was any way that I could have helped.  Was there any way?”

“I probably was in a different state than you could have imagined, and I suppose that I could have used a hug back then, but I didn’t know how to ask for one.  I had pretty much given up on sentimental stuff by then and felt like I had nothing to offer to anyone.

Fact of the matter, I’ve felt bad myself for a good many years because I was never able to be there for you.  You would get hurt, by your own doing or at your father’s hand, or get picked on by that damned Bobby Crowe, and I could clean you up and put a band aid on the worst of it, but I could never give you a hug, or even think of a word to say to you that would help.

I was so bound up in my own troubles that I couldn’t find a soft shoulder for you, and as time passed, my anger and bitterness about how life had turned out for me seemed to grow instead of wane.  By the time you met Maureen I felt like I was your nanny more than I was you mother, and that by my own choice.  Clark and Emily had grown up and moved out as quickly as they could by then and there was only us, and when you met her, she and her family took that responsibility off of my shoulders it seemed.

And I was glad to give it up.  I loved you and Clark and Emily.  I celebrated your victories and suffered for you all when you stumbled, but I didn’t know how on earth to connect with you on any more than the most superficial level.  I have friends, true enough, but it’s still like that.  We give each other enough support to keep a friendship alive but not much more than that.

That is not the girl that I used to be.  What I became was the result of being pressed and squeezed and deformed by my fifteen years with Chet.  I could protect you from him, but I couldn’t give you much more than that, and for that I am truly sorry.”

Elaine sat back in her rocking chair but did not allow herself to relax.  The jaw was still set, the spine rigid and straight, her chest rising and falling with short, shallow breaths, as if trying to vent off the anger that her story had dredged up from a vault of painful memories.

Charlie sat equally still, trying to begin to sort this new information that was exploding into his brain.  He didn’t need D’Andra to realize that his inability to extend comfort to other hurting people did not arise from his father.  It was his mother, who was a victim herself, and who’s wounds had locked her heart in an iron cage for which no key could be found, that had modeled this aloofness.

Now, as she approached her eighth decade of life, she had opened up to Charlie and allowed some of that hurt to ooze out onto the old, familiar living room floor; a floor that Charlie once played on, and where he had stretched out on a rug watching the television with Maureen, whispering things in her ear that would make her giggle and punch him lightly on the shoulder.  He thought of LuAnn, who had just lost her husband and was pouring out her grief to God and to family and friends, and who opened her heart to receive comfort in return and regain her balance.

Elaine Hamer never had those blessings; didn’t know how it all worked.  Charlie hadn’t either, until recently at any rate.  But as he looked at his mother he felt the beginnings of a caring response such as he had never experience towards her in his life.  He thought of Rachael and her damaged eye, Jason and Billy struggling to live and move on with the trauma of what they had experienced in war, and LuAnn, and it was as if a tide of human caring had at last ceased its ebb and slowly began to flow in his life.

He had no idea how it would be accepted, but he decided that he would not try to staunch that flow.  This was not a time to think of Civil War battles or problems in matching drywall to plaster.  Charlie looked at his mother, sitting proud yet wounded in her chair, lonely and still a victim of the disappointment that she had experienced in her life.

“Mom, would you let me hold you now?” he asked.

She stared at Charlie as if she didn’t understand his words.

“I know.  We don’t do this sort of thing; either of us.  It’s weird for me too.  But if it’s OK, I would like to hug you.  I’ll keep it short, if your like, but I wish you would let me.”

Charlie could see emotions playing behind the eyes of his mother, and he could only guess at what they could be.  He rose up from his place on the sofa and walked half-way to the chair where his mother was sitting and stood there.

She looked at him and said “We’ve hugged before.  We did on the porch, just today.”

“Yes, I know,” he said.  “That was ‘hello.’  This one would be ‘I know that you’re hurting.  This one would be ‘I want to help you carry the load.’  This one would be ‘I love you, regardless of our history.’”

Elaine sat for a minute longer and then, slowly and almost mechanically, she rose up and walked the few feet to where her son stood.  He wrapped his arms around his mother and pulled her gently against his chest.

And then, little by little, he felt the beginning of a melting, like springtime on a snowfield.  The spine softened and the head lowered onto Charlie’s shoulder.  No words were said; not a muscle moved, but two souls shifted with a power that could shake mountains.

After a long embrace Elaine let go and returned to her chair.  Charlie stood still for a moment longer, and then returned to his place on the sofa.  Elaine was rocking her chair again but the motion was more fluid and easy, a rocking of the cradle as opposed to a burning of nervous energy.  Charlie could see the change and wondered if a change could also be seen in him as well.  At last Elaine spoke to her son.

“Charlie, I know that you were going to wait until tomorrow to start looking for Maureen and Jack, but I suggest that you start right away.  I’ve been wound up tight as a drum for most of my life and it looks like I’ve shared that curse with you.  You’ve come here with a good mission in mind.  An important mission.  I suggest that you get busy with it now.”

The Garden, Chapter XIII

Two weeks after moving in with Billy, Charlie was beginning to feel like he had the beginnings of a handle on life.  The dismal apartment where for two years he had existed but not lived was now a memory.  The kitchen  remodel job at Carolyn’s house was progressing ahead of schedule, even though she had been far too busy of late to help him very much.  Instead, her nephew Luke had shown an interest in the construction arts and pitched in whenever he could.  Even though Luke knew nothing about Charlie’s craft, he was a smart and observant kid who could take instruction and turn it quickly into performance.

Charlie liked the young man and genuinely enjoyed sharing the work with him,  and he began to imagine what it would be like if it was Jack instead of Luke that he was working with.  Of course, Jack didn’t have the natural talent or interest that Luke seemed to possess, but then Charlie had never lavished the patient attention on Jack that he was currently bestowing on Luke.  Over the course of the past two weeks Charlie had become convinced that he should pay Luke something for his labor, and also that he must reach out to his own son and try to rebuild a relationship with him.

Carolyn would inspect Charlie’s work every chance that she could, and she learned from him in much the same manner as Luke did.  The design flaws in her bathroom which she nearly allowed when Charlie first began to work for her would never happen to her now, as she began to learn to look two and even three steps ahead.

“I’m sorry that I can’t spend more time here on the job with you,” she had once told him.  “I’m convinced that your end of this deal is where all of the fun is.”

When she said that Charlie looked down at the black thumbnail that was the result of an errant stroke of his framing axe. He also felt the ache in the bottom of his foot where he had stepped on an old ring-shanked drywall nail, and the throb in his shoulder where he had received his tetanus shot as a result of that nail.  “Yeah,” he replied as he inspected the blackened thumbnail.  “With a few obvious exceptions, this really is where the fun is.”

The outside wall of Carolyn’s house was now pushed four feet out and sealed on the outside.  This resulted in the house once again being secured from the outside world, and Charlie felt like at last he could breathe easier.  He had hated the thought of there being only one layer of polyvinyl sheeting between Carolyn and the world that he had come to know so well at the apartments.

Even though Luke was staying with her during this period, he was, after all, just a kid.  A big kid, yes, and a strong one, but just a kid all the same.  The determined evil that prowled through the darkened streets of Vancouver, even the streets far from the downtown apartment that he had so recently inhabited, was truly a match and even more than a match for one good-hearted teenage boy.  Charlie tried hard to make sure that Carolyn didn’t know about the nights when he had slept in the cab of his truck a few houses up the street from hers.

Today he was going to meet with D’Andra, and intended to share with her his plan to make an attempt to connect with Maureen.  He had given the idea a great deal of thought and had shared it with the guys at the Key and Lock.  Even Walt, who continued to hold to the opinion that this was a fool’s errand, agreed that with the help of a small miracle – “not that I believe in that crap,” he had added – there was a possibility that it might work.

But first he was going to have a good breakfast.  Billy liked to cook, and Charlie was beginning to put on a few pounds.  Today, however, he wanted to have his morning meal at Leroy’s, mostly in order to see how LuAnn was doing.  As he pulled up to a stop in a parking space near the restaurant, he noticed that he now felt like a visitor to the Vancouver downtown rather than a denizen of its streets.  He liked the change.

The place was busy when he entered and once again he saw Jason seated at his usual table by the kitchen door.  There were open stools at the counter, but Charlie went to see if he could share a table with the young man.

“Got room for another stray dog?” he asked.  Jason smiled and waved a hand at the chair opposite his own.  Charlie sat down, picked up a menu and asked “What’s good today?”

“Pretty much same old same old.” Jason replied.  “They don’t change the menu much around here, and if Tank’s cookin’, well, it’s Tank’s cookin’.”

“That’s good enough for me,” Charlie said.  At that moment Peggy burst through the door pushing an old aluminum cart loaded with condiments.  She looked harried, but came dutifully over to the table when she saw Charlie seated there.  She asked if he’d had time to look at the menu.

“I have,” Charlie replied.  “I’ll take the hamburger steak with hash browns and gravy.  Oh, and I am paying for my meal today.”

Charlie expected to get a rise out of Peggy with his snide comment, but he was disappointed.  Peggy gave a weak smile and went to stick his order onto the wheel in the kitchen window.

“Huh,” Charlie said to Jason.  “I thought that I’d get a little bit of a push-back from her with that one.  Do I look like I have money or something?”

“She’s probably still getting over the fact that I have money,” Jason replied.

Charlie looked at Jason with surprise and said “You do?”

“Yeah,” Jason laughed.  “I got a part-time job in housekeeping at Clark General Hospital,  It’s a float position with no benefits and no guaranteed hours, but somebody’s always sick or wants a day off, so I’m working about twenty five or thirty hours per week so far.”

“Wow, that’s great news,” Charlie said.  “How do you feel, being in the loop like that?”

“You mean, can I hack it?  Will the loser finally get it together?”

Charlie regretted his question instantly.  “No, I don’t mean that at all.  I’m just getting my own act back together, and I live with a guy who’s taking his own first steps too.  I just wondered how it’s working for you.  I didn’t mean any insult.”

“That’s OK, man.  It’s cool.  I was must monkeying with your head.  No offense taken.  And the answer is that it feels good.  I have to keep my mind focused on doing the job, and not getting sucked into all of the silly bullshit that people who’ve never really had it rough like to wallow in, but it’s worth it.  Peggy brings me refills now that I can pay for them, so that makes it all worth it.”

Indeed, Peggy was at that moment bringing Charlie an empty mug and a pot full of coffee.  She placed the mug in front of him and filled it, then refilled Jason’s half-empty mug.  Charlie had to suppress a laugh as Peggy spoke with them like regular customers and Jason acted like he was a captain of industry.

They continued to chat about each other’s work situations and the quality of grease that tended to pool in their plates here at Leroy’s until Peggy brought Charlie his food.  For the next few minutes after that, silence reigned at the table.

At last Charlie scraped up the last bit of gravy with a crust of toast and pushed away the plate.  He drained his coffee and barely suppressed a low belch.  Jason was sipping his coffee and resting in his chair, letting his meal begin to digest.  He looked completely at ease with the world, and that is how Charlie felt too.  At length Charlie began the conversation again.

“So, where is LuAnn?  Is she out today taking care of Duane?  He’s had his operation, hasn’t he?”

Jason’s face clouded over and he sat a little straighter in his chair.  “Haven’t you heard, man?”

“Heard what?” Charlie asked.  “Did she retire or something?”

“No, man.  Duane died.  He died on the operating table.”

Charlie sat speechless in his chair.  His mind quickly drew up images of a worried LuAnn, telling him about her fears but certain that things would be all right.

 

“Shit, man,” he said.  “That’s awful!  What happened?  LuAnn thought they would be OK.”

“Yeah, she did” Jason replied.  “That’s usually when life rears up and bites you in the ass, isn’t it?  The surgery went fine, as far as anyone knows, but an artery or something just blew up in his brain.  BAM!  Alive to room temperature in sixty seconds.  She’s a good egg, too.  This really sucks.”

Charlie was speechless for a minute, and then asked “Well, how is she doing?  Does anybody know?”  He tried to get his mind to grapple with the bad news.  When Stevie had died, he remembered, friends and business acquaintances had brought over meals and done chores and errands for them.  That was the only healthy response that Charlie could now think of offering, not that his cooking would be a good thing for anybody.  Finally he asked “Is anybody doing anything to help her?”

“I don’t really know,” Jason replied.  “There’s a tip jar by the door, and regular customers are putting money into it to help her out.  You could ask Peggy though.  she was closer to LuAnn that I ever was.”

Charlie sat silently in his chair, thinking about LuAnn’s good-natured attitude and the warmth that she had extended to him when he began to visit many weeks before.  She always had a quick laugh and a wise opinion whenever he would talk to her about his troubles.  Now it was her turn to be in the fire.  What could he do or say to her?  He couldn’t even comfort his own wife, so what could he say to this casual friend?   Charlie was wrestling with these thoughts when Peggy came to refill his cup.

“Peggy,” he said.  “I just heard about LuAnn’s husband.  Can you tell me how she’s doing, or if she needs anything?”

Peggy seemed to be surprised at Charlie speaking to her in such a familiar and ernest fashion.  Her look of surprise quickly faded though and she responded to his question with what looked to Charlie like genuine compassion.

“LuAnn’s a strong woman.  She’s doing fine; or at least as fine as you could expect.  She and Duane have family, and they are helping a lot.”

“I would like to help if there’s any way that I can,” Charlie said, while wondering what on earth he could possibly do.

“Well,” Peggy began.  “She and Duane went to the Peter and Paul Luthern Church.  You know, the one about two blocks on the other side of the courthouse from here.”

Charlie nodded as if he knew where that was.

“They’re holding a memorial service there this Saturday.  Duane was a deacon or an elder or whatever they call it there, and so they would probably be able to tell you if they need anything.  Or you could just go to the service.  I think LuAnn would like to see you there.  She was pretty fond of you,”  Peggy then turned her eyes towards Jason and added “and you too.”

She then turned away to resume her service to the hungry patrons of Leroy’s, and left Charlie staring mutely at Jason.  At length, Jason broke the silence.

“I was going to go to the service already.  Tank told me about it yesterday.  I don’t spend much time in churches.  Like, never.  LuAnn is real, though.  You know, she’s never looked at me like I was a worm, or had some damned disease.  I think of her like she’s family or something.”

Charlie knew that he had to leave soon in order to be on time for his appointment with D’Andra.  He suddenly wanted to know more about Jason; what he knew about LuAnn, what he had going on in his life.  At last Charlie shared a completely random thought that had only that moment entered into his head.

“You ever do any construction?”  It only took Jason a moment to reply.

“Nope.  Never picked up a hammer.”

“Good,” Charlie replied.  “That means you don’t have any bad habits to unlearn.  Would you have any interest in trying out the construction trade?”

“Shit, I don’t know.  Is it anything like work?”

“Hell yes it’s work.”  Charlie then showed Jason his damaged thumb.  “Construction will treat you bad sometimes, but it’ll love you if you love it.”

Jason was not sure how to respond to that.  “So, what?  Are you offering me a job?”

“Well, no.  Not exactly,” Charlie replied.  “I just want to know if you would be interested if I did.  The person I’m working for now is already taking a chance on damaged goods by using me, and I wouldn’t expect her to take another.  I’ll be done with the project that I’m on in a few weeks though, and I could use an extra hand going forward.  Nobody else out there is as good as I am though, so training a new helper from scratch makes all of the sense in the world to me.  What do you think?”

Jason mulled that thought for a few moments and then asked “Are you going to bust my balls if I go for this?”

“You bet your ass,” Charlie replied.  “I can’t have some cull dogging it and trashing my work.  But I understand that you don’t have any experience at this kind of work and I’m OK with that.  I’ll demand that you do things right, but I’ll show you how to do those things, and for the most part I’ll consider it my own failure if you don’t get it right the first time.  Or the second time too, for that matter.  This stuff doesn’t just come to you by magic.  I guess I’m saying; or really I’m asking, would you like to give construction a shot under another guy who’s had the shit kicked out of him by life and knows how that can feel?”

It didn’t take Jason more than a minute to consider Charlie’s proposal, and he said “Your offer is intriguing.  Let me make a counter offer.  I’ll keep my job at the hospital, but I’ll mostly take the off-hour shifts.  You know, the night shift and weekends and so forth.  If I find that construction suits me, I’ll back away from the hospital, but if construction isn’t my cup of tea I’ll still have my hospital gig.”

“That makes sense to me,” Charlie replied.  “Do you have a phone, or some way that we can stay in touch?”

Jason answered in the affirmative and they exchanged phone numbers.  Peggy quickly noticed that the wo men were ready to leave and brought the checks to their table.

“There’s no way that you’re going to let me pay for this, is there?” Charlie asked.

“Not on your life,” Jason answered.  “But I wish that you would let me pay for yours.”

Charlie thought about Jason’s offer, and then about all of the time that he had recently spent disconnected from the world, just as Jason had been.  He had descended into a dark pit where he would not allow anyone to intrude, nor from which he would make any effort to escape.  He looked at Jason and saw a dim shadow of himself.

Charlie liked this young man who, like himself, was only beginning to rebuild a life.  He had hated himself for two years, and was disgusted with his failure to attend to the things that really mattered.  But this young man; this dim shadow, this metaphor for himself, was also emerging from his own dark place and was a very likable person.  He was worth taking a chance on.  he had something to offer to the world that the world would be the loser to ignore.  Could it be that this description fit Charlie the same as it did Jason?

And now this wounded, broken fellow traveller had just asked if he could do Charlie a favor.  He had asked Charlie if he could “bless” him, to borrow LuAnn’s terminology.  In some dim, disorganized way, Charlie understood that something important was happening here.  The course of the rest of his life, and perhaps Jason’s too, could turn on the answer, and the answer was clear to him.

“Yeah.  Sure,” he replied. “There may not be any such thing as a free lunch, but nobody’s said anything about there not being a free breakfast.  How ‘bout I cover the tip?”

The two men agreed to that arrangement and put their money on the table.  In keeping with his promise to LuAnn, Charlie left a generous tip for Peggy.  They got up from the table together and Charlie headed for the door while Jason walked into the kitchen.  “Probably still needs to work for a few meals” Charlie thought.  “That’s good.  Shows responsibility.  Yeah, I think Jason could work out.  If he wants to, that is.”

By now Charlie was coming very close to being late fort his appointment with D’Andra.  He climbed into his truck and made the short trip to her cottage in less than five minutes.  He parked the truck and picked up a sack of vegetables that he had picked from the garden.  “There’s no way that I can compete with what comes out of her oven,” Charlie thought, “but I can at least try.”

He knocked on the door and it was quickly opened by D’Andra.  “Hello, Charlie,” she said with her warm and pleasing smile.  “Please, come in.”

Charlie was prepared to hand D’Andra the bag of cucumbers and squash and green beans, with a couple of onions thrown in, and hoped that he would receive a little praise for his gardening expertise.  And indeed that did come.  Eventually.  But before he could hand over the sack his nose was assaulted, in the best sense of the word, by a smell that he remembered from his childhood.

“Oh. My. Goodness!” he said.  “You’ve been baking bread!”

“I certainly have,” she replied.  “It’s a family tradition to bake our own bread and it’s our family recipe.  I’d tell you what’s in it – – -.”  D’andre paused at that point, and Charlie picked up the thread seamlessly.

“But you’d have to kill me?”

“Something like that,” she said, the smile not changing really, but somehow seeming even warmer than before.  At last her eyes fell on the sack that Charlie cradled in his arms.  “What have you got there?” she asked.

Charlie remembered his gift and extended the sack to D’Andra.  “Here.  This is for you.  I grew this in the garden that I’ve been telling you about.”

As she looked into the sack her eyes lit up and her smile erupted even larger than it already was.  “Oh, Charlie.  That is the nicest gift that I could ever imagine.  We had a truck patch behind our house when I was growing up and I loved the foods that my mother and older sister, and sometimes my aunt Clarissa would make out of what we would grow.  Believe me, Charlie.  I will enjoy this produce every bit as much as I enjoy the things that come out of my oven.  And they’ll be better for me, too” she said with a laugh.  “Now come on in and sit down.  We’re having home baked white bread, toasted or not as you prefer, with jam and butter and coffee.  Does that sound OK?”

“That sounds like heaven,” Charlie replied as D’Andra carried the sackful of produce into the kitchen.  Instead of sitting down, Charlie followed D’Andra.

“When I was a boy, we used to go up to College Avenue, to a bakery that was about two blocks from our house.  Mr. and Mrs. Metzler owned that bakery, and they lived in a house on the opposite side of the alley, behind our place.  The Metzlers were Seventh Day Adventist, I think, because the bakery was closed on Saturdays but open for business on Sunday.

At 10:00 in the morning they would bring the day’s bread out of the ovens and place it on the racks to cool.  My brother and sometimes the other kids in the neighborhood and I would show up at 10:15 and buy loaves of it while they were still warm.  We sat down on the curb right outside of the bakery and pulled off handfuls of warm bread and washed it down with sodas.  Those are some of my best memories.”

“Well, I hope this bread gives you some warm memories too.  Here, put some butter and jam on this toast, and pour yourself a cup of coffee.

Charlie did as he was told and then sat down in his usual spot on the love seat.  Salome the cat was nowhere to be seen, so he placed his small plate with buttered and jammed toast on the table next to it and found a coaster for his coffee.  D’andra joined him shortly with two pieces of toast of her own, but hers was spread much more thinly than was Charlie’s.

“Oh,” he said.  “It looks like I made a pig of myself here.”

“No, it looks more like you made yourself at home, which is what I would like for you to do.”

“Well,” he responded.  “Then don’t be surprised if I make another trip to your kitchen.”

“Pleased would be more like it” she replied.

Charlie still had a stomach full of the best grease that Tank could cook, and knew that seconds on D’Andra’s bread was unlikely.  “There’s no harm in setting the stage, just in case” he told himself.  At length, D’Andra put her plate of toast on the table and sat back in her chair.

“Well, Charlie.  What are we going to talk about today?  Have you made a decision about trying to contact Maureen?”

“Yes, I actually have.  But there’s something new that I would like to discuss first.”

“You’re in charge,” she said.  “What is it?”

I got some pretty sad news today.  Pretty sad.  You know my friend LuAnn, whom I have spoken of?”  Charlie went on to explain the details of Duane’s death, as best he knew them.

“So, how did it make you feel when you heard about it?”

“You know, my first impulse was to eat my breakfast as quickly as I could and leave; just get away from that scene as fast as I could.”

“Sort of like when your mother would be depressed when you were a child?”

“Yeah, sorta like that.  I was really sad for LuAnn.  I remembered how fondly she spoke of him, and how she once told me “I don’t know what I would do if something ever happened to him,” or something like that.  I just knew the sadness that she was feeling, and I wanted to run from that sadness.  I didn’t know what to do with it.”

“And did you run?”

“No, I didn’t.  I couldn’t.  LuAnn was a friend and a kind voice when I was really at the bottom.  I can’t express how much her kindness meant to me; still does mean to me.  Well, I couldn’t just throw her under the bus.

Trouble is, I don’t know what to do.  How do I help her?  I think she’ll be OK financially, and she has family and friends, so what in the world could I ever do?”

D’Andra took a small bite from her toast and chewed it slowly, and then took a sip of coffee.  At last she said “Maybe she could tell you what you can do.”

“Huh?” Charlie asked.

“Maybe she could communicate to you, one way or another, how it is that you can help her.  Sometimes people want to talk about their loved one, and all you have to do is listen.  Other times people don’t want to talk at all, but they dread being alone.  In those cases just being a friend and sharing someone’s space with them is what they want.

Some people want a shoulder to cry on.  I know how uneasy that would make you, Charlie, but maybe that is what you would need to do to help your friend.  The problem is that you can’t know unless you make contact with her.  Is there any way that you can do that?”

“Yes, there is,” Charlie replied.  “There will be a memorial service this Saturday at a little church not too far from here.  Peter and Paul Lutheran, I think Peggy said.”

“Oh, yes.  I know where that is.  Corner of 13th and Knox.”

“Well, I’m thinking of going, but I don’t have a lot of experience at being in churches.  I’ve asked Rachael if I can go to hers sometime, but I haven’t really gotten around to it yet.  I just don’t know how I’m supposed to act in a church.”

“I think the key is to not act at all, Charlie.  Just bring who you are and don’t give two thoughts about any sort of show that you’re supposed to put on.  Your friend sounds like she will let you know if there’s anything that she needs.  Other than that, you just being there will probably be the best thing that you can do for her, right now at lease.  Besides, you’ll know her at least, so you won’t exactly be there alone in the church.”

“No, I wouldn’t be alone,” he agreed.  “Jason, a recently homeless guy who I’ve eaten with at Leroy’s said that he’ll be there.  And I’ll bet Tank, the cook, will be there too.  I don’t know him really, but I’d know his hash browns and gravy anywhere.”

“Good.  That settles it.  You know, Charlie, I believe that I can see something important here.  This feeling of wanting to be present for your friend, and actually stepping up to do it, is what you were not able to do for your wife and son.  And really, couldn’t do for your mother either.  How do you feel about that?  Does it feel like something’s changed, or maybe shifted there?”

Charlie thought about that for a while.  In his concern for LuAnn he had nearly forgotten about the trauma of his daughter’s death and the effect that it had on his family; the events that were the reason for his meeting with D’Andra in the first place.  Now he thought about Maureen and Jack, suffering in silence while he dealt with his own grief – or didn’t deal with it – in his own cocoon.  The same way that he had dealt with his own father’s desertion and his mother’s loneliness.

“You know, something has changed.  I can’t just turn my back and walk away.  ‘I don’t know what to say or do’ just isn’t a good enough answer, even if it’s the damned truth.  Uh, pardon my language.”

“I’ve heard it before, Charlie.”

“So, this is where I got stuck with my family; I couldn’t help them because I couldn’t help myself.  Just like I couldn’t help my mother.  But, why couldn’t I help my mom?  It’s not like I really cared one way or the other if my father stayed or left.”

“Really, Charlie?  Is that true?  Can you remember your relationship with your father before he left?”

Charlie thought hard about that, and at length he answered “No, I can’t say that I do.  It’s like I said; he didn’t do much with me, so I didn’t have any real connection with him.”

“Well, I know that this will sound a little wierd, but try to go along with me.  Do you remember not-doing things with your father?  I mean, did you ask him to play catch with you, and he said “No”?  Or do you remember waiting for him to come home when you got A’s on your report card?  Or F’s?  Do you remember a birthday party where he didn’t show up?  Or when he did?  What, exactly, do you remember about your father?”

“Oh, I remember a lot,” Charlie began.  “I remember him being at the dinner table – – – .”  Charlie’s mind wandered at this point, as he tried to dredge up a memory of his dad.  After a few moments of silence D’Andra spoke again.

“Do you remember him being there on specific occasions, or do you remember that he was sort of generally there around that time?”

“Well, I remember—-. I remember the night that, – – -.  Uh, I remember spilling my milk once.  He grabbed me by the collar and made me go to my room.”

“That’s it?  You remember once that you spilled your milk at the table and your father got upset?”

Charlie thought hard about his relationship with his father, certain that a flood of specific memories would soon erupt out of his clogged brain, and that he would then share them with D’Andra, but the flood never came.  After a few minutes of this Charlie just looked a D’Andra with a puzzled expression on his face and finally said “You know what?  You’re right.  I don’t remember diddle about my dad.  I don’t even remember what he looked like.  I’ve always had an image of him in my mind, on the few occasions when I would think of him at all, but that could just as well have been a mannikin at the Sears store down at the mall.”

Charlie fell silent again, and D’Andra was silent too.  He picked up his piece of toast, which was quite cold by now, and munched on it absently as he let the idea sink in that he had no true picture of his father in his mind, and hadn’t had any such picture for a very long time.  D’andre was obviously giving him space to ponder this revelation, and Charlie was using this time to begin to try to sort things out.

It was at this moment that Salome decided to make her entrance.  She jumped towards the back of the love seat from behind and overshot the landing, which caused her to slide over the back and tumble, a ball of fur and claws, onto the cushion right next to Charlie.

“Ah!” Charlie cried, and jumped up out of the seat.  D’andre jumped as well when Charlie reacted to the unstable flying feline.  Salome, the center of the commotion, decided that two startled humans watching such an undignified performance was no place for a cat to loiter and took off running towards an open doorway into a back room.

Charlie looked down and saw that his half-eaten toast with butter and jam lay face down on the hardwood floor, right next to what he suspected was a very expensive area rug.

“Oh, good grief!  Excuse me!  Here, let me clean this up.”

As he reached down to pick up the toast D’Andra began to giggle, and soon it swelled into a belly laugh that was infectious.  Charlie soon was laughing too.  D’andre brought some paper towels and a squirt bottle out of the kitchen and quickly cleaned up the mess while both of them still laughed.

“I guess I should write a textbook and advise students to never let a cranky old cat without front claws have free rein in a house when you are in a session,” she told Charlie.

“On the other hand, I don’t know of anything that can loosen you up more quickly,” he replied.

At last they sat down and returned to business.  “I think this is important Charlie, but I want to move on now.  I would like for you to think about your father though.  Think of anything you can remember about him, and most of all think of anything you can remember about how you felt when he left.  Will you do that?”

“I’ll certainly give it my best shot,” Charlie said.

“Good.  Now, what about Maureen and Jack?”

Charlie shared with D’Andra the advice that he had received from Rachael and LuAnn and the guys at the Key and Lock, and especially from Billy.  “I was especially impressed with Billy’s thoughts,”  he said.  “I think it’s possible that there’s still a job that it’s my duty to perform.  No, not a job really.  More like, well, I don’t know.  Like a responsibility.  No, it’s not that either.”

Charlie told D’Andra about the fingers in the arteries, while she listened intently.  When he finished she softly said “Yes.  Exactly!  You tell that young man that I couldn’t say it any better than he did.  On second thought, I don’t even know if I could say it that good.  It’s neither a job nor a responsibility.  It’s more like a will to act on behalf of someone who is in some way a part of your soul.  A part of your soul that is incomplete; it’s wounded and bleeding, so to speak, and by acting to stop the bleeding from somebody else’s wound, somebody who you love, or even once loved, you are stopping the bleeding in your own wound”

D’Andra was beginning to get excited, or as close to excited as Charlie had ever seen her.  “And by addressing Maureen’s wound you help with your own healing, and in the process you offer Maureen the opportunity to help in her own healing by helping you.  Yes.  Excellent.  Charlie, I have worked very hard to learn ways to help people, but your Billy sounds like a natural.  So what do you intend to do?”

“I don’t exactly know,” Charlie replied.  “In less than two months billy will begin attending classes at the college.  I’m taking him hunting before that, and I’ll be on my job for another couple of weeks or so.  I think that between ending my job and taking Billy hunting I’ll have a couple of idle weeks.  Of course, I’ll have to be looking for work, but I think I’ll take a weekend, or maybe three or four days, and fly to San Diego.  I’ll visit my mother – I know that she isn’t expecting that – and I’ll call my former in-laws from her house.  I hope they will allow me to speak to them.  Maybe they will give a message to Maureen.”

“Mmmm.  That sounds like a workable plan” D’Andra said, and then sat silently.  After a moment or two she continued speaking.  “I think that is a very good plan, and I would say ‘get to it.’  I wish that I could call them for you and tell them how hard you are working at getting your experiences into a proper perspective and making things right, but I guess that would run counter to just about every accepted practice in my field.

Well, Charlie.  It looks like the time has flown past us again.  Just to recap though, I think your willingness to step out of your comfort zone and be with a hurting friend is wonderful.  This LuAnn must be a remarkable woman.  Certainly, she is a lucky one to enjoy your friendship.  Also, I would like for you to spend some time remembering all that you can about your father.  There are some locked doors there, I think, that would benefit from being opened to let a little air in.

Lastly, I’m already excited about your trip to San Diego.  Perhaps you can learn some things about your father from your mother, if she will talk about him.  But most important is the chance to complete some business with your wife and son.  Even if Maureen is not interested in your help or being in contact with you, you will be reaching out; doing your part.  I think that will be very important as you go forward.

Now, let me wrap up the bread.  No! Don’t even try to argue.  If you don’t want it, take it to that excellent young man that you’re living with.  No ten loaves of bread could make us even for those beautiful vegetables that you brought me.  Shelby loves them too, but he grew up in the city and doesn’t know the first thing about growing vegetables.  I hope that we can get around to putting in a garden some day.”

Charlie dutifully took his bread and bid D’Andra good bye.  As she closed the door behind him he walked in a haze to his truck.  The shock of hearing about Duane’s death was jarring enough by itself, but the possibility that his own father had more of an impact on his life, both by his presence and later by his absence, was a thought that truly shook his mind.

But he would have to think about that later.  Carolyn would be waiting for him to come as soon as possible to begin putting her new kitchen back together.  The external walls were once again secured, and although Luke was now free to return to his normal activities he chose to stay on and help every day that Charlie was working.  Charlie enjoyed the company of both Carolyn and Luke, and must now clear his mind of distractions so that he could devote all of his attention to his work and to these two new and unexpected friends.

The Garden, Chapter VI

Charlie awoke the next morning with what he  thought at first might be a hangover.  His gut felt tight and his head felt like there was a band around it with a screw increasing pressure by being ever-so-slowly tightened.  “Dang it, I should know not to drink too much after being away from alcohol for so long” he thought.  But in his heart Charlie knew that the discomfort that he felt had nothing to do with the couple of beers he had enjoyed the night before with Walt and his friends.  This unease was just a new manifestation of the hurt that had been Charlie’s unwanted companion for the last two years.

Charlie rubbed the gritty sleep from his eyes and the first thing that he saw was the flowers in his old coffee pot.  “Damned waste of a coffee pot” Charlie growled under his breath.  Rising from his sofa, Charlie walked across the tiny living room, picked up the pot and walked toward the kitchen.  “I’ll throw these weeds into the trash” he thought, but when he arrived at the trash can by the kitchen counter he couldn’t bring himself to throw them away.  “What the hell” Charlie thought.  “This pot makes crappy coffee anyway,” and so the flowers received their last minute reprieve.

Charlie fried some bacon, then fried some eggs, and then fried some potatoes.  All the while he wondered if he could fry broccoli.  He gave up on that plan however and peeled an orange.  This orange was the first piece of fresh fruit that Charlie had eaten in many months, although he didn’t think of that at the moment.  His stomach was probably surprised at this intrusion by something with nutritional value.

Charlie looked at the coffee pot again, and again nearly threw the flowers into the trash.  Once again however he denied the impulse and even returned the flowers to their spot on the table next to the television.  Charlie remembered what he had thought the night before:  “It’s not the flowers’ fault.”  And it wasn’t.  The thought helped to relieve some of the pressure around his head, just a little.

Still, Charlie needed coffee.  He knew that finding somewhere to get a cup of coffee would not be a much of a problem.  Coffee in the Northwest is like cheese in Wisconsin; you could buy cheese with your tires or appliances or anything else.  As Charlie locked the front door and walked toward his truck the solution to his coffee shortage leapt into his mind.  “I’ll get a cup at Leroy’s.”

The morning rush was in full swing when Charlie walked through the door of that tiny reflection of an earlier time.  Every table and every seat at the counter was taken.  Charlie had arrived a little bit later than he had the day before and the workers getting off from the night shift at the port and railroad yard, plus the commuters waiting for traffic to die down before tackling the interstate highway that crossed the bridge and flowed into every corner of Portland (a futile act, that was, and everyone knew it) had filled the place.

LuAnn was bouncing from table to table, chapped red hands filled with steaming plates of ham, eggs, waffles and every other good thing that you would expect to find at a truck stop or a small town greasy spoon cafe.  Charlie chuckled as he thought to himself “News flash Charlie.  This IS a small town greasy spoon cafe.”  LuAnn looked up as she deposited her load of dishes and turned to pick up another that had appeared on the window shelf between the dining area and the kitchen.

“Hello there” she said cheerily when her eyes landed upon Charlie’s.  “Sit anywhere.  We don’t stand on formality around here.”

Charlie quickly assessed that standing was all that was going to happen at that moment if he was to stay, and he opted not to do so.  He sought LuAnn’s attention in order to sign his departure.  She at last looked his way again and he subtly waved his hand, sweeping the room.  LuAnn could see in an instant what the problem was and signaled back for Charlie to come to the corner of the counter, closest to the kitchen window.  Charlie did as he was told while LuAnn brought the stool that she had sat on the day before.  She moved some newspapers and a small pile of menus to clear a place at the counter and placed the stool in front of the newly liberated space.

Charlie thanked her and sat down as LuAnn walked away to clean up a table that had just been vacated by a party of burly men who looked like they could unload a ship or a boxcar with their bare hands.  At length LuAnn got the table cleared, poured a few more cups of coffee, and returned to take Charlie’s order.

“What’ll it be Dearie?” she asked.

“Just coffee” Charlie responded somewhat sheepishly, embarrassed that he had caused her to make a fuss over him for only a cup of coffee.

“Glory be, Hon” LuAnn said with a broad smile as she reached for the nearby coffee pot. “I told you that you were a blessing!  I’ve been busier than a one legged man in a fanny kicking contest.  They must’ve put on a second shift at the port or somewhere.  I need a rest!”

LuAnn cackled a good natured laugh at her own metaphor, followed by the smoker’s cough which she buried politely in the crook of her elbow.  Then, after pouring a cup full of industrial grade coffee which was still better than anything Charlie had made at home, she went off to seat another couple of men and clear two more tables where customers were beginning to look restless and ready for their check.  At this point a middle-aged, overweight man with a florid face beneath his cook’s hat and a stained apron emerged from the kitchen in order to run the cash register and pour coffee refills for the customers sitting at the counter.

Charlie watched the rhythm of the cafe as he sipped his coffee and reflected on the business that he had once owned.  Hamer Properties and Construction was no giant, by the standards of the real giants of industry, but in Clark County, Washington it was a very prominent player on the commercial scene.  The company had begun in the same manner that many construction outfits do, as one man with two acquaintances who acted as independent contractors and paid their own taxes.

Charlie was a natural at building things and in fifteen years had built a company that employed forty three workers plus various independent contractors, and built single dwellings, small residential developments, and small to medium commercial projects.  Additionally, HP&C held rental and lease properties that provided an even inflow of cash during the ups and downs of the construction business cycle.  Yes, Charlie had done very well for himself.

But all of this empire building did not happen by spontaneous creation.  Charlie would rise before the sun, eat a breakfast prepared by Maureen, and get to the job site early and stay late.  Charlie did good work.  His customers were satisfied and his workers well treated.  The money flowed in, and although Charlie had little taste for newer and more expensive toys, the security that his bank account and investments provided was like a drug to him.  “How much is enough” John D. Rockefeller was once asked.  “Just a little more than I have” was the gazillionaire’s answer.  Charlie would have denied the wisdom of that quote if he had ever heard it, but if he was honest with himself he would admit that he was a lot more like Rockefeller than he was like Mother Teresa.

Maureen would have agreed with that assessment without hesitation.  Charlie had never been a bad husband to her or a bad father to the children.  In fact, he was reasonably good in both of those areas.  It was just that he was an absent husband and father too much of the time.  Maureen first learned to miss her husband.  Then, ominously, she learned to not miss him.

Charlie’s relations with the children were complicated.  He favored his Golden Girl, Stephanie, who was a tree-climber and fly fisher and wave rider; in short, a girl after his own heart.  With Jack however his relationship was less secure.  Charlie loved Jack and was proud of his obvious intelligence and musical ability.  Jack took piano lessons and was his teacher’s best pupil.  Jack could also pick up just about any other musical instrument and quickly begin to sort out the techniques necessary to tease a little music out of it.

But Jack didn’t work well with his hands.  Whenever he tried to work with his father on a project around the house Jack would inevitably cut a board too long or, worse yet, too short.  The cerebral wiring necessary to enable a worker to see a finished project even before it was begun just wasn’t there for Jack.  Charlie wasn’t angry with Jack about this, but inevitably Jack receded from the center of Charlie’s attention as he drove on towards the goal of more business and more money,

Charlie’s eyes began to redden at the thought of his son.  Maureen had surrounded the boy with love and attention, and his big sister treated him like a rock star.  Several of Stevie’s friends were caught up in her affection for her little brother and gave him more attention than a young boy usually expected from older girls.  Jack was never made to feel like a pest with his sister and her friends.  Charlie, however, withheld the whole-hearted attention that Jack, and for that matter the rest of the family, deserved.  Maureen dealt with it, Stevie rose above it, but Jack was injured by it.  Charlie by now had plenty of time to reflect on that fact, and reflecting on it this morning caused the tightness in his chest and pressure from the invisible band around his head to increase.

The cook returned to his kitchen to prepare the order for the men who had come in a few minutes earlier.  More customers were paying up and heading toward the door, and none were entering to take their place.  After a huge inhale, the cafe appeared to be making an exhale.  LuAnn cleared one of the tables and a couple of places at the counter, and then refilled Charlie’s cup.  She shoved a pile of dirty dishes a little further down the counter, poured herself a cup of coffee, then perched on the round counter stool next to Charlie.

“Well, how are you doing today, young man?” she began.  “Two days in a row makes you a regular – – -.”

LuAnn saw the redness in Charlie’s eyes and stopped in mid sentence.  “Is something wrong, Sugar?  Are you OK?”

Charlie sat on his stool and said nothing.  He focused on his breathing, thought about the D Day invasion, and then gave up on that diversion.

“Yes and no” Charlie said.  “There’s some things that get me down when I think about them, and I’m thinking about them today.  I try not to, but sometimes that just doesn’t work.  Anyway, I wouldn’t want to bother you with it.”  Charlie reached for a napkin and blew his nose.

LuAnn sat quietly by Charlie and blew on her coffee.  Charlie was glad that she didn’t say anything, and he was also glad that she was there.  The warmth generated by the nearness of a kind human being penetrated his skin in some mystic way and spread warmth to his frozen heart.  Shortly, the last customer sitting at the counter began the usual rustlings and movements that signaled readiness to pay up and leave.  LuAnn patted Charlie affectionately on his wrist, handed him another napkin, and left to begin cleaning up the now nearly empty cafe.

Charlie dabbed at his moist eyes with the napkin and blew his nose one more time.  He wanted be on his way to work, but his coffee mug had just been refilled.  Also, he was feeling a peace imparted to him by LuAnn and he hesitated to leave that.  For just a moment he thought about helping her to clean the tables.  The young homeless guy wasn’t here today, so the full load would fall on LuAnn and the cook.  “Naw” he thought.  “You’re not their daddy.”

At that thought he remembered Jack again, and the time when he really had been a daddy, or could have been one had he chosen to do so.  The pain boiled up before he even saw it coming, and it hit him broadside.  Charlie felt like he was going to lose it, so he put twice the cost for a cup of coffee on the counter and stood up.  LuAnn looked his way as the motion caught her eye and watched as Charlie walked across the cafe towards the door.

“Dearie” she said, and Charlie stopped and turned towards her.  “Forgive me for butting in.  You don’t have to carry what you’re carrying alone.  Any time you want to sit somewhere where nobody’s going to judge you, you come here.  I’ll make a place for you if I’m here.  I know what pain is, and I’m going to pray for you.”

Charlie had no idea how to answer that.  He thought of God as a pissed off white guy in the clouds looking for the next sinner that he would roast in hell.  That picture didn’t make for much of a refuge.  The simple sincerity of LuAnn’s words conveyed none of that image however.  They just tried to give comfort, and Charlie decided to accept it.  LuAnn walked over to Charlie and gave him a hug.  As she separated she reminded him “You have a place here.  You aren’t alone.”

Charlie didn’t trust his mouth so his eyes had to speak his thanks.  He nodded goodbye and walked to his truck.  Once seated in the cab he prepared for the torrent of sobs that would usually come at this time, but oddly they failed to materialize.  Charlie was confused by this and thought full-on about Jack, expecting that to trigger the usual response.  It did not.

As Charlie thought about his son he remembered his love of music, his quiet demeanor, his intelligence.  And he also remembered that Jack was alive.  It was Stevie who died, not Jack and not Maureen and not himself.  He had thought before that Jack might as well be dead to him but today, for reasons that he could not quite fathom, he understood clearly that Jack was not dead.  He was very much alive.  And he needed a father.  This thought brought considerable confusion the Charlie, and he put it in the back of his mind to chew on it later.  Now, he realized, he had work to do.

Charlie put the engine in gear and drove to the site where he was working on the bathroom job.  He arrived at the house and quickly perceived that the homeowner was waiting anxiously for his arrival.  Charlie looked at his watch and saw that he was not late, and so assumed that she had something on her agenda.  Charlie assumed right.

“I’m sorry, but I have to run” she said on her way out the door.  “I have a client that I have to meet earlier than I thought.  There’s coffee in the pot if you’d like some.  I hope to be back in an hour or two.”

Charlie said “OK” and entered the house.  The homeowner lived in a house of sixteen or seventeen hundred square feet, the usual ranch style, that was about thirty years old.  Charlie had noticed that everything in the house was dated; carpet, appliances, and especially the bathroom.  The homeowner was always well dressed – professionally so when she went out to meet with clients – and this seemed to be out of place in this somewhat dreary house.  He therefore assumed that she had recently purchased the home.  Charlie had never seen a husband there, but he had never really thought about what that might mean one way or the other.  The homeowner, Carole or Carolyn or something like that, was the only person he had made contact with there.

She was about thirty five or forty, and pleasant, at least as much as he had had any interaction with her at all.  Usually she was in an office that had once been a bedroom while he worked.  From time to time she would disappear, sometimes leaving Charlie to lock up when he left.  “She must sell something” Charlie thought.  “Probably real estate.  Everybody thinks that they can sell real estate.”

Charlie entered the house and looked in the kitchen.  He had drank all the coffee he needed at Leroy’s but thought that it might be rude to ignore the offer that had been made to him.  The coffee maker had a glass container that was about a quarter full, and Charlie poured some into a white china cup.  The coffee was less than boiling hot, so Charlie could sip some rather quickly.  “This is the good stuff!”  Charlie thought.  “I have got to get me one of these.”  Charlie quickly finished his coffee and fell to work on the bathroom project.

Charlie soon forgot about the homeowner and lost himself in his work.  When she returned to the house he didn’t hear her come in.  Therefore, when she saw the progress that had been made on her bathroom she exclaimed “Oh, that’s wonderful.”  Charlie was not expecting that and jumped at the sound of her voice.  Worse yet, he had at that moment been preparing to break wind, and when he jumped the fart got away from him.

Braacckk!  Charlie turned beet red and apologized for the fart, the odor of which was beginning to permeate the bathroom’s air.  The homeowner was apologizing at the same time, but soon smiled, then giggled, and then simply broke down in laughter.  The laughter was not malicious; was in fact infectious, and Charlie’s embarrassment quickly melted away and soon he, too was laughing.

The homeowner sat down on the bed as tears rolled down her face.  She continued to struggle, trying to apologize some more,but the effort was only partially successful.  Charlie, for his part, was glad to escape the embarrassing moment, and chose that time to also escape the now-fetid air of the bathroom.  He flipped on the wall switch that engaged the overhead vent and exited the room.

As Charlie left the bathroom a wave of air drafted out with him, which brought the homeowner back into control.  “I think it’s time to beat a retreat” she said.  Standing, she walked toward the bedroom door and said over her shoulder “I’m going to make some lunch.  Would you like something to eat?”

“Sure” Charlie replied.  It was nearing his lunch break anyway.  “I have my own lunch that I should eat today, but I would love another cup of your coffee.”

The homeowner accepted that proposal and soon had coffee beans grinding in the kitchen.  Charlie retrieved the salami and cheese and apple that he had in a cooler in the cab of the truck.  The day was getting warm, as spring was plodding towards the summer that eventually came to the Northwest, most of the time anyway.  “I’ll have to start putting some ice packs in my cooler soon” he thought.  Charlie returned to the kitchen to find two plates placed at the table and the air filled with the aroma of coffee.

“You can sit over there” the homeowner said while pointing towards one of the plates.  “I’ll have the coffee made in a few minutes.”

Charlie sat down and placed his meat, cheese and apple on the plate.  The plate  was unnecessary, but it looked like it was expected of him and so Charlie complied.  The homeowner got some blueberries and yogurt from the refrigerator and some sort of cereal in a glass container off of a shelf.  She made a bowl of cereal out of those ingredients and then poured two cups of coffee and brought them to the table.

“Thank you for the coffee this morning” Charlie said as the homeowner sat down.  “I mostly drink industrial strength mud, so that was a – – – treat.”  Charlie almost said ‘blessing’, and didn’t know why he hesitated.

“You’re welcome” she answered.  “I didn’t have time for breakfast, so excuse me for digging in,” and then she began to spoon slightly indelicate amounts of the cereal into her mouth.

“Excuse me too” Charlie said before he dug into his own lunch.  “I’m terrible with names, and I have forgotten yours.”

“Oh,” she replied.  “I don’t know if I told you more than once.  I’m Carolyn.  Carolyn Hatcher.  And don’t feel bad.  I’ve forgotten yours.”

“Charlie.  Charlie Hamer” he replied.

“Charlie Hamer” Carolyn repeated.  “That sounds familiar.  Ah, I remember.  There was a company by that name.  Any connection there?”

“Yes, that was my company” Charlie replied.  He was obviously unwilling to speak much further about it though.  Carolyn recognized his reticence.

“Bad memory there?  OK.  I’ll drop it.”

Charlie appreciated the sensitivity and felt compelled to say so.  “Thank you.  It’s still a raw wound.  Yes, I used to own that company, but just now I don’t feel comfortable discussing it much.”

“OK.  But that explains why your work on my bathroom is so good.  I have to tell you again how much I appreciated the suggestions that you made to me on the redesign, and also how much I like the work that you are doing.  I’ve told Al Schaeffer a couple times now how pleased I am that he gave me your phone number.  I’m not an expert, but I would say that you are quite a craftsman.”

“I’ve tried to be that all of my life” Charlie replied, finding that he enjoyed the compliments that he was receiving.  “I think it was Michelangelo, or Rodin, or somebody like that who said that a sculptor sees the figure that is locked in the marble and then releases it with his chisel  I look at my work sort of like that.”

“It shows” Carolyn noted as she chewed a spoonful of the cereal.  Charlie looked a little embarrassed as he picked up a chunk of cheese.  Embarrassed but pleased.

“I’m glad that you like it” Charlie said.  I’ve always taken pride in my work.”

“Why did you get out of it then?” Carolyn asked, and then continued “Oh, I’m sorry.  I said that I would drop it and there, I’m at it again.  Please, forget that question.  Your business is your own.”

Charlie looked down and pushed a chunk of cheese around on his plate.  He had spoken openly of his history a little more than a week ago with Walt and Rachael, but he was still not comfortable with doing so on a regular basis.  Charlie was touched by Carolyn’s obvious sincerity however, and decided to tell some of his story to her.

“It’s OK.  There was a – a death in the family.”  Charlie’s voice tailed off until it was hard to hear.  “I still have trouble dealing with it.”

It was now Carolyn’s turn to blush, and she became tongue-tied as well.  “I’m so sorry.  I didn’t mean to – – – .   Ah, I’ve always had a big mouth.  Just ignore me” she said.  She then got up and began to fuss with plates and the dishwasher and almost dropped the coffee pot.  Carolyn’s agitation surprised Charlie and brought him out of his funk.

“It’s all right” Charlie said.  “Really, it is.  I’m slow at getting used to talking about this but I have actually started to do so a little.  I’ve appreciated your kind words and love your coffee.  It would be OK with me if we hit the reset button and go back to you saying what good work I do.”  Charlie smiled at his own attempt to lighten the moment and was pleasantly surprised to see that he had been successful.  Carolyn settled down and finished her impromptu kitchen chores quickly.  She then walked back to the table and sat down.  “OK”  she said.  “Reset.”

Carolyn breathed a deep sign, and then sat for a moment collecting her thoughts.  At length she said “There’s something else that I would like to discuss with you though, and I hope that I haven’t mucked things up so much that it gets in the way.  I picked this house up on the cheap because I like the location and, frankly, it’s what I could afford.  It definitely needs work though, as you could tell from the bathroom.  This kitchen,” Carolyn nodded towards that room with her head, “needs help too, possibly more even than the bathroom did.  I’m not sure of exactly what, but it needs something.  A lot of something!  I have some ideas but I would be interested in your thoughts.  Maybe, if we make a plan that I like, you could fit it into your schedule?”

Charlie thought about that for no more than a minute.  “I don’t really have much of a schedule.  Because of my – situation – I have not been all that engaged.  Yeah, I think that I might be able to put something together; share a few ideas with you.  One thing though, and I’m a little embarrassed to say it.  I’m going to be raising my labor cost a little, I think.  I’ve been pretty close to the bone for a long time and I think that I should bump it up.  It won’t be much, but I think I should.”

“I think you should too” Carolyn replied.  When Al told me your rates I almost didn’t call you.  I never trust the low bid; it’s usually low for a good reason.  I’m not rich,” Carolyn smiled at that.  ‘Not yet anyway.  But I believe in fair value, and you do better work than what I’m paying you for on the bath.  And speaking of that, will you accept more for that job?  I feel like I should be wearing a mask if I’m going to be robbing you.”

Charlie thought about that.  He really could use the money.  Ultimately however he decided against it.  “No, but thank you for the offer.  A deal is a deal, and I’ll keep my end.  Maybe, if we come up with a kitchen plan however, I could draw an advance?”

“Deal” Carolyn said.  “Now I have a lot of T’s to cross for my client that I saw today.  Would it be alright if I sketch out what I have in mind tonight and share it with you tomorrow?”

“That would be fine” Charlie replied.  When I finish today I’ll take a few measurements and pictures on my phone.  I’ll draw up some ideas and we’ll see what we can do.”

“Excellent!” Carolyn said.  She gave a little wiggle in her chair, and then quickly regained her composure.  “Then I’ll let you get back to work.  I think the air’s cleared out in the bathroom.”  They both laughed at that and then went back to their respective occupations.

Charlie took his measurements and pictures that afternoon after wrapping up work for the day.  He felt certain that he could finish the tile tomorrow, and the new shower door would arrive then or the next day.  Charlie felt the old construction rhythm returning as his tape measure stretched and then snapped back, and in his mind he saw a new kitchen take shape.  He wanted to discuss details with Carolyn right then and there, but she had sequestered herself in her office and had only emerged from there once to make a cup of tea.  At length Charlie knocked on her door.

“I’m going now” he announced when she opened the door.  “I have all that I need to work with for now.  I’ll bring some drawings tomorrow.”  Carolyn smiled and said that she looked forward to seeing them, but he could see that she was thinking about her work.  “Must be a big deal” he thought, “or a big cluster bang.  I hope this doesn’t fall through.  I really would like to do a kitchen and I could use the money.”

Charlie waved good bye and said that he would lock the door behind him.  Once he got to the cab of his truck Charlie leaned back on the bench seat and blew out a long breath.  The prospect of Carolyn’s job was exciting; it would be the largest job that he had done since the divorce.  The increased pay would be a good thing too.  Yes, the day had turned out better than he had imagined it would when he woke up that morning.  Charlie thought about Jack, Stevie and Maureen, and although the thoughts reminded him of sadness they did not plunge him back into despair.  “Fine” Charlie thought.  “I’ll keep it that way, for now at least.  I’ll let their memories rest for the time being.”

And then Charlie’s mind turned to the garden.  Walt would almost certainly be there.  “Shit” Charlie thought.  “I think he lives there.”  Rachael might be there too, although it was a little early for her.  Charlie continued to debate his next move as he pulled from the curb and headed to the busy main street a few blocks away.

“Turn left and go to the garden, or turn right and go home.”  Charlie didn’t feel quite ready to go home so he turned left.  To his surprise Walt wasn’t there at all, but Rachael was.  The garden was still fairly damp, so he didn’t feel the need to water.  Instead, he pulled weeds with Rachael for an hour, telling her about the job prospect and letting her vent about some particularly difficult issues that she had to confront at work.  The hour passed quickly, and they parted company.

As Charlie drove back towards Vancouver he remembered that all he had to eat in his apartment was some bacon, a couple of eggs, lunch for tomorrow, and a head of broccoli.  “Well”, he thought, “I guess it’s eggs and bacon and broccoli.  I have got to spend more on my diet!”

The thought of cooking tonight seemed like a waste of time though.  Charlie was anxious to begin work on the kitchen plans, and so he stopped at the Top Burger, a throw-back hamburger stand where they still actually cooked the burger patties.  “I can just afford it” he thought to himself.  “I’ll ask for a draw if she likes my plan and we agree to the job.”  What he would do if she did not like the plan didn’t enter into his mind.   He ordered a couple of burgers and and order of fries and drove home so that he could get to work.

Once in his apartment it was all burgers and fries, rulers and calculator.  Charlie had very little paper in his apartment; mostly the backs of envelopes that he received in the mail from a variety of people seeking his non-existent business.  After an hour he drove to the nearest home improvement center to look at appliances, counter tops, lumber and flooring.  Charlie wanted to put a nice package together for Carolyn to consider.  He knew that she would have some of her own ideas, and he also knew that it would aggravate him to have to modify his work of art; it always had been that way.  She seemed businesslike however, and Charlie felt like he wanted to be able to work well with her on this project.  And it was, after all, her house.

Late that evening, with drawings on some better paper that he purchased at the store and price estimates on all of the components of the job, Charlie felt like he could relax.  The sadness that he had experienced that morning had vanished, and Charlie didn’t know if that was good or not.  “Do I have the right to feel good?  Am I forgetting about my family?  About Stevie?”  Charlie let his mind chew on these questions for only a short while.  At last he concluded that life might suck from time to time, but he was still alive and had the right to feel good.  “For tonight at least” Charlie thought, “I’m glad to be alive.”

With that thought Charlie took a shower, turned on the television, turned out the lights and fell into a deep and untroubled sleep.

 

 

The Garden, Chapter II

Charlie remained in the garden for less than an hour after having his conversation with Walt and Rachael.  He had just engaged in the longest and deepest interaction with another human being, much less two of them at once, than he had experienced in over a year.  To Charlie, it seemed like an eternity had passed since he had spoken of how he felt to anyone.  At first, as he returned to pulling weeds and gently scratching fertilizer around the tender seedlings that were poking hopefully through the dirt of his garden, Charlie felt embarrassed.  He had spoken of his failed marriage; his failed fatherhood, his failed business.  Worse than that he had cried, and right out in the open.  “What an idiot I looked like”  Charlie thought, and at one point scratched the soil so close to a bean sprout that he almost dislodged it from his bed.  Once again he felt the anger and frustration that he had felt earlier that afternoon, but he recalled that all that had accomplished was a crushed onion sprout, and made an effort to pull back from the hot edge of his anger.

Charlie looked up in the direction of Walt’s plot, and then over at Rachael’s.  Walt was mixing something in a green plastic bucket and Rachael was in a far corner of her plot, trying to dig out what Charlie guessed to be a large rock.  Neither of his neighbors were paying the least attention to Charlie, and that was just what he wanted.

At last Charlie finished all that he wanted to do that day and stood up to survey his accomplishments.  “The plot looks a lot better organized now than it did when I got here” Charlie said to himself.  Then he remembered the help and advise that he had received from his neighbors and amended his thought.  “Actually, my garden looks good because those two helped me.”

     Charlie picked up his tools and put them into a five gallon plastic bucket.  Neither of his neighbors looked up as Charlie carried the bucket out of the community garden and placed it in the bed of his Ford pickup truck.  Charlie leaned against the bed of his truck and looked directly at Walt and Rachael.

“That is one annoying, foul-mouthed piece of work” Charlie thought as he looked at Walt.  “And Rachael is a very sweet girl.  I’m really glad that they told me their stories.  I know that they were trying to help, at least I think that they were.  Anyway, it helped.  And they left me alone after we finished talking, which is just what I needed.  I think that in such a case as this normal people would say  thank you.”

 

Charlie pushed himself away from the bed of his truck, walked back through the gate in the chain link fence and straight to Rachael’s plot.  She was putting what she thought was the final touches on her project of exposing and expelling that rock from her garden.  It had turned out to be an impressive boulder.

“Can I help you with that?” Charlie asked as he approached the kneeling  woman.  Rachael looked up and responded without a moment’s hesitation.

“I would appreciate that very much.”  Rachael’s forehead was beaded with perspiration and streaked with wet dirt.  Her shirt was also soaked with sweat, and the moisture highlighted the curves of Rachael’s body.  Charlie noted those curves reflexively, and then jerked his eyes and attention back into the direction of the buried rock.  He made a mental estimation of the size of the monolith and guessed that still more might be buried.

“Wait here” Charlie said, and returned to his truck.  One of the tools in his bed  was a six foot steel wrecking bar that he had been using on a small job that morning.  Charlie lifted the heavy tool out of the bed of the truck and carried it back to Rachael’s plot.

“This will make things easier” Charlie said as he arrived, making sure this time that he kept his eyes on Rachael’s face or on the rock.  “Stand back a bit, if you will” he said.

When Rachael was a safe distance away Charlie raised the bar and brought it down with all his force at the edge of the rock.  As he had expected, there was more rock than had already been exposed.  The point of the tool collided with the subterranean edge of the rock and chips flew in all directions.

“That’s why I wanted you away from the rock”  Charlie said.

“I can certainly appreciate that” Rachael responded as she backed farther away from the rock.  “Don’t you think that you should be wearing some kind of eye protection?  You’re closer to the action than I am.”

Charlie thought about that for a moment.  It had been a while since he had warn a seat belt in his truck, or used goggles or gloves in his work.  It was as if he was daring life to screw with him more than it already had.  Maybe one great accident would happen and put him out of his misery.

“You’re right” he replied to Rachael.  “I’ve left my safety goggles at home.  I’ll be more careful though.  Can I borrow your excavator?”

Rachael looked down at the tool in her hand that had three sharp metal prongs.  “You mean this?”

“Yeah.  Can I use it for a minute?”

“Sure”

Rachael handed the tool to Charlie and in no time at all he had exposed the true edge of the boulder.  He rose up and stabbed at the dirt just outside of the rock’s margin and encountered no resistance.

“OK” Charlie said.  “Here we go.”

Charlie withdrew the wrecking bar and then plunged it with all of his strength into the soil adjacent to the rock, and the tool bit deep.  He grabbed the top of the heavy steel bar and put his weight into pulling it downward.  His end of the bar came down toward the ground and the buried end rose up, lifting the recently submerged rock out of its resting place.

“Jeez, that’s the Rock of Gibraltar!” Rachael exclaimed.  At this point Walt, who had been watching the whole thing, came over to give his two cents’ worth.

“That’s one big-ass rock” Walt stated matter-of-factly.

“No shit Dick Tracy.  Where did you get your first clue?” Charlie replied dryly.

Walt didn’t respond at all to Charlie’s remark.  Instead, he looked directly at Rachael, his eyes resting on her sweaty shirt a good deal longer than had Charlie’s, Finally he said “Let’s get this friggin’ boulder out of the ground.  Watcha say?”

Charlie and Rachael agreed, and while Rachael pushed down the end of the wrecking bar Charlie and Walt thrust their hands under the rock and rolled it up and out of its resting place.  At last the boulder lay on the path between Rachael’s plot and the chain link fence that surrounded the whole garden area.

“Let’s leave it here for now”  Charlie suggested.  “I have a sledge hammer, and I’ll return tomorrow and break this beast into some more manageable pieces.”

“Sounds fine to me” said Walt.  “Heavy son of a bitch!”

“I’m grateful for the help you’ve given me already” she said to Charlie, and then looked over at Walt.  “Both of you.  I don’t want to impose on you any more.”

“No worries, the pleasure will be mine” Charlie replied.  “I like the work, and it will be a challenge.”

“Yeah, he doesn’t mind at all” Charlie chimed in with a hint of a smirk.  He was ignored by both Rachael and Charlie.

Charlie looked at the rock for a moment, and then looked up at his two gardening companions.  “I want to thank you two for the help you gave me this afternoon.  I’m – – -“  Charlie fumbled for words.  “I’m, well, uh, oh.  Well, shit!”  Charlie hissed.  His emotions were rushing in all directions and he thought that he was about to cry again, which made him even more tongue-tied.

“It’s OK” Rachael said.  “You don’t have to explain anything.”  She rested her hand on Charlie’s shoulder.  “Let’s just call this a good day and leave it at that.”

Charlie looked at Rachael through moist eyes and just nodded.  At this point Walt chimed in with “Yeah.  We don’t need any more blubbering.”  Charlie looked over with embarrassment but Walt cracked a big grin and gave him a good natured thump on his back.

Charlie grinned sheepishly, wiped his eyes, and then nodded to both of them.  He turned and walked back to his truck.  As he fired up the engine and pulled away from the side of the street Charlie felt a swell of emotion.  His family had urged him to get out of his apartment for some reason, any reason, other than work or going to the store. Charlie did as they had asked and he had not expected for it to result in anything like the human interaction that he had just encountered.  The dirt and the plants were supposed to give his hands and his mind something new to do, and indeed that had accomplished that.  Interaction  with not just beans and onions but with two living, breathing human beings had come as a complete surprise.

Charlie thought more about his two gardening companions as he drove away.  Walt was a cretin.  There was no doubt in Charlie’s mind about that.  The foul language and obvious appreciation of Rachael’s femininity were offensive to Charlie.  Walt had been willing to help Charlie with his plant beds and his story though, and he had spoken of his trauma with what appeared to Charlie to be an intent to help, and not just an opportunity to whine.  From what he had told them, he had as good a reason to whine as anybody could, too.

Rachael was the opposite of Walt.  Her kindness and decency were obvious, and he couldn’t help but think that Stevie might have been a lot like her.  His mind drifted to helping Rachael with the buried rock, and he thought about the safety goggles resting in a drawer in his apartment.  Then he thought about the safety belt lying on the bench seat next to him.  Charlie couldn’t say exactly why, but he felt the urge to put it on.  He pulled off of the main drag and stopped his truck by the curb of a residential street.  He picked up one end of the belt with his right hand and reached down with is left to get the end resting on the floor by the door.  Charlie clicked the belt into place and noticed that it lay lump across his lap.  “Humm.  I guess I’ve lost a little weight” he thought to himself.  With a pull on the free end of the strap he cinched up the belt and then, feeling odd with his belt on but strangely secure nonetheless, Charlie returned to the busy street and proceeded to drive home.

The brick complex where Charlie lived was Section VIII housing.  All of Charlie’s neighbors were low income, as he was.  He never interacted with anybody and they left him alone, except for one time when his small apartment had been broken into.  Charlie had nothing worth stealing, but the intruders took his cheap television anyway.  They left the rabbit ear antenna however, so Charlie bought another little TV set at the local thrift store when he had the money.  Nobody broke into his apartment after that.  Word probably got around that the eccentric guy in apartment C didn’t have anything worth the trouble.

On this day Charlie parked on the street.  He exited his truck and walked up the sidewalk to the entrance of the complex.  A Hispanic woman was sitting on the porch watching three small children play on the postage stamp sized lawn.

“Buenos tardes” Charlie said, having picked up a little Spanish from some of his employees when he was a big shot contractor and property developer.  charlie had always been more interested in a person’s abilities than any other personal factor, and so on many occasions had interacted with employees for whom Spanish was their first, or perhaps only, language.  He hadn’t used that language for some little while though, and the words felt both awkward yet somehow comfortable at the same time.  The woman who had never seen the crazy Gringo hermit speak to anyone before, was surprised by his greeting.

“Buenos tardes” she replied.  “Como estás?”

“Bien, gracias” Charlie replied.  He walked past her and entered the building, as the Latina watched him in stunned surprise.

Charlie walked down the hall to the back of the building and shoved the key into the lock on the door.  Most of the other doors had at least two locks on them but Charlie was comfortable with only one.  He had nothing worth stealing and hadn’t really cared for a while now if somebody did burglarize his home.  Maybe they would do their dirty work at night and shoot him in the process.  So much the better.

Charlie opened the door and stepped inside his apartment.  It was a small unit with a living room, bathroom, kitchen and closet.  A sofa bed rested on one side of the living room, but Charlie never bothered to pull the bed out.  A pillow, a sheet and a blanket on the sofa were all he needed.  He passed through that room and into the kitchen, where he extracted a sauce pan from a cupboard.

“What’ll it be tonight?” he thought.  “Beef stew, beef stew, or beef stew?”  Charlie pulled a big pot of stew out of the refrigerator and set it on the little countertop.  He then ladled a large helping of stew into the pan and began to heat it up.  While it was heating Charlie washed his hands and then turned on the television.  Some sitcom was on and young and attractive actors were playing the part of neurotic city dwellers as usual.  Charlie barely paid attention.  He returned to the kitchen and stirred the stew until it was evenly warm, then filled a bowl with it and returned to his sofa, where he would eat his dinner and stare blankly at the television, again, as usual.

Charlie ate his stew and watched the marginal acting and listened to the inane dialogue, but for the first time in a long while it did nothing to dull his senses until fatigue would place him in a fretful sleep.  His mind kept returning to Walt helping him build up a bed for his onions, the rock that the three of them had dug out of the ground, and Rachael’s warm hug.  Human contact was something that Charlie was out of practice on, and the reintroduction of that contact had the effect of softly jarring charlie out of the rut into which his seemingly empty life had settled.

 

Working with others to accomplish some difficult task had been a sharp but pleasant change from his solitary life.  Hearing other people tell of the difficulties in their lives without trying to minimize the difficulties in his own was also a refreshment to Charlie’s soul.  The real, personal contact though; the working side by side with Walt and the simple, compassionate hug from Rachael, had fed some portion of the being that was Charlie Hamer, a portion that hadn’t even realized that it was hungry.

Tonight, as Charlie watched the familiar actors play the familiar characters as they wrestled with ridiculous non-problems, all to the predictable canned laughter of an audience that probably wasn’t even really there at the filming, brought no comfort.  To the contrary, he was disgusted with the show, and with his own routine.  He turned the sound off, but kept the video portion on.  Baby steps.  Outside the window Charlie heard a conversation, now that the noise had been muted in his own apartment.

“Don’t come around me” a male voice was saying.  You got nothing to say to me and I got nothing to say that you’re gonna want to hear.”

“Why you bein’ like that”  a female voice asked petulantly.  “I done nothing wrong to you.”

“You been acting like you’re my girl and then you got seen making time with Joey.  I’m gonna kick Joey’s ass when I see him, but you – – I just don’t wanna see your face.”

“Joey’s nothing but a friend” the female voice explained.  “I known Joey for a long time.  We’re just friends.”

“Yeah.  You’re just friends al right.  Max seen your heels sticking up from the back seat of Joey’s car.  Pretty good friends it looks to me.  Now leave me alone.”

And on it went.  This was not an unusual conversation at Charlie’s residence, but it was the first time that Charlie had paid attention to it.  He half expected to hear a slap, but eventually the accused stomped away while the cuckolded ex-boyfriend shouted further threats against Joey at her back.  “Flippin’ idiots” Charlie thought.  Then he thought about himself.  “But here I am sitting in front of a TV with the sound turned off in this dump.  Who’s the idiot?  At least they’re acting like they’re alive.”

     Charlie stood up, turned off the television, and flipped on a light switch.  The bare and dingy room was the same that Charlie had looked at for the last year, but tonight he noticed its state of uncare.  Charlie was disturbed by the dirt that he was living in, and that fact surprised Him.  Why should he care?  Scrubbing the floor wouldn’t bring back Stevie, or Mo or Jack for that matter.  He had lost the ability to care, or so he had thought.  Now, that ability was beginning to come back, like feeling into a leg that has gone to sleep because its circulation had been cut off.

Charlie felt like he should clean up, or at least start to.  “Why?” he asked himself.  “Because Walt or Rachael might come over” was the answer.  “That’s just crazy talk, fool.  Nobody’s coming over here.  They don’t know where I live, they have absolutely no reason to come over here, and I haven’t’ invited them to come here in the first place.  And I won’t invite them.  This ‘caring’ thing is dangerous, and nothing good’s going to come from it.  Get ahold of yourself, Charlie.”

But Charlie could only maintain a fragile hold on himself at best.  He kept imagining Walt enjoying a beer with other veterans at the VFW hall, or Rachael out of her sweaty clothes, curled up with a cat and a book and a cup of tea.  As Charlie looked around the apartment he was filled not with disgust, but rather disappointment that his life had come to this.  What made him most uneasy was the thought that maybe, maybe, he could and should do better.

“Aw, screw it” Charlie muttered as he gave in to the impulse to clean something up.  He gathered his blanket, the two old sheets that had sat in a laundry basket for the last six months, his bath and dish towels, and his small collection of clothes and stuffed them into trash bags.  The laundry room at his complex was probably busy, if it was even working that night, so Charlie threw his laundry into the cab of his truck and headed uptown towards a laundromat that he had used from time to time.

At the laundromat he started his clothing with a healthy amount of bleach added to each washing machine.  Charlie sat down, but his nerves quickly had him fidgeting in his seat.  An attempt to read a home improvement magazine that was nine months old was a complete failure.  At last he put the magazine down, stood up and walked out of through the door.

The sidewalk was busy on C Street.  Vancouver’s downtown was beginning to grow after decades of decline.  New restaurants and bakeries and stores and watering holes were drawing people out of the suburbs and down to the new/old hub of town.  Some of that renewal was spreading uptown, and the street was hopping on this night.  Charlie had walked these sidewalks a lot the last year, but without thinking at all about his surroundings.  He knew what he needed and drove there, walking to and from whichever store carried his needs, and then back to his truck with scarcely a thought of the other life occupying that area.  Tonight however Charlie watched the cars pass by, and customers leaving a restaurants and going elsewhere to continue the evening’s celebration of life.

 

One block towards the true downtown was The Barrel of Suds, a new pub that was drawing a large crowd.  Charlie wondered if it was possible that Walt was in there. He did not especially like Walt or covet his company, but he found himself thinking that Walt might be propped in a corner lifting beers and generally annoying anyone who would sit close to him.  Charlie tried to look through the windows but tables on the inside were right up against the wall, and he would have to stare past customers seated on the other side of the glass in order to see inside.

“Crap” Charlie muttered.  “I don’t even LIKE the guy.  What do I care if he IS in there.”

“What was that?” a young woman asked him.

“Oh, nothing” Charlie answered, feeling his face turn red.  “Oh great” he thought.   “Now people hear me talking to myself.  Get a grip, Charlie.  Charlie began walking again, but as he passed the corner of the business he stopped dead in his tracks.  “Oh what the hell” he silently surrendered.  He then turned and walked back to and through the doors of the pub.

Inside, the place was a noisy hive.  Music was playing through speakers in corners of the the ceiling and a hockey game was on the huge screen in the main room to the right.  Charlie looked around that room, just in case Walt or even Rachael was to be found in there.  Of course, they were not.  Looking forward Charlie saw the bar through a doorway, and walked over to where an empty stool sat idle, waiting for a customer.  Charlie plopped down on that stool and began to look around this portion of the establishment.  Nearly everybody was young, twenties or thirties or so, and Charlie realized that he was far more likely to see Rachael in a place like this than he was to see Walt.

“What can I get you?” came a voice, and Charlie turned back to the bar.  In front of him stood an attractive young woman with a black outfit that featured a very short dress.  She had a blonde pony tail and an ornate tattoo on her right shoulder that Charlie couldn’t quite make out in the dim light.  Charlie was momentarily flustered, and the girl, who was a veteran at her profession, waited for Charlie to regain his composure.  “Yes, I would like a beer” Charlie finally answered, feeling the color rise in his face again.

“Take your pick” the young woman said, as she pointed to a chalk board with at least twenty different beers written on it.  “Those are on tap.  We have all of the usual bottled suspects here too.”

“I’m new at this” Charlie replied.  “I’ll accept your recommendation.”

The bartender stepped back and studied Charlie for a moment, and then said  I think you should start with a pale ale.”  She walked away and soon returned with a mug full of cold, amber fluid with the thinnest hint of a head.  “This one’s not too hoppy.  Let me know if you don’t like it, and I’ll get you a different one.  On the house.”

Charlie thanked her and assured her that this beer would be fine, and indeed it was.  It had been a long while since Charlie had tasted a cold beer, and his first sip of brew slid across his teeth and rested on his tongue.  “I could get used to this” Charlie thought.

He now turned and studied the room that he was seated in.  Booths and tables lined the windowless wall across from the bar and it seemed as if every seat was taken in that direction.  One both featured four young men arguing about the merits of the Portland Trailblazers  in the upcoming season.  Closer to him was a table with two young men and a woman of similar age.  Their conversation was less boisterous, but they had to speak up to be heard.  As a result of this Charlie heard them say “Kant, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and some other names, and he surmised that they must be talking about philosophy or philosophers.  At another table sat a guy who was probably in his late forties, close to Charlie’s age, with unnaturally black hair and a couple of gold chains to match his gold rings, talking earnestly with a much younger woman who had obviously had one or two drinks too many.  “Shit” Charlie thought.  “Does that tired old routine still work?  I guess so.”

     Charlie enjoyed his beer and the noise and energy of the “Barrel” for a while, but the energy and fullness of those lives around him began to contrast to sharply with the coldness and emptiness of his own.  He downed the last of his beer and left a tip on the counter for the bartender.  He didn’t stay around to see if she picked it up or if the woman sitting next to him at the counter would help herself first.  He told himself that he didn’t really care.

Charlie felt relieved when he returned to the sidewalk outside of the Barrel of Suds.  The one glass of beer had put a little buzz on Charlie and the cool air against his face felt good.  It was too early to return to his washing chores, and so he continued down C Street.  A jazz band was playing in a club across the street and Charlie considered going there.  He didn’t have a lot of money however, and chose to just walk and enjoy the cool of the evening.

Down at the end of C street, many blocks in front of where Charlie was walking, lay the pedestrian pathway to the great, steel and concrete bridge that crossed the Columbia River.  Charlie had walked across that bridge several times in the last year, and each time he had considered leaping over the steel rail and into the cold and fast-moving waters of the river below.  If he did this at night, nobody would see him and the watery embrace of that river would usher him into a world where there was hopefully no pain

Charlie had thought hard about what the result of such an act would be.  Some people thought that there was an afterlife, where all of this life’s pains would be taken away.  Others thought that when a person’s life would end, they would come back again, and possibly as something else;  a cricket perhaps, or a cow or a prophet, according to how you had lived.  Still others believed that there would be nothing.  Annihilation.  A cessation of all that made life good or made life hell.  The latter sounded best to Charlie, although there was also the entrancing idea of a reunion with his dead daughter in some place called heaven.  Of course, there was the uncomfortable view, held by some, that those who commit suicide go to a definitely uncomfortable place called hell.

Charlie doubted that.  “Why would somebody escaping one hell just be sent to another?” Charlie reasoned.  It didn’t seem fair, but then, what the hell had been fair in his life lately?  These thoughts and many others just like them had haunted Charlie’s mind on those cold, numb nights that he had stared sightlessly at a television screen or lay on his sofa with his face toward the open window, hoping that somebody would come through that window with a gun or knife and take the decision out of his hands.  At this moment the bridge, the red lights of which could be seen in the distance, did not look like an answer to Charlie’s pain.  He didn’t know what DID look like an answer, but he knew thought, at this moment at least, that the bridge was not it.

Charlie then realized that he had been standing at a street corner for a while, staring at the red lights of the bridge in the distance.  It was probably time to return to his laundry.  He turned and strolled back to the laundromat, feeling no dramatic release from his usually constant state of pain, but with the definite feeling that to some small degree the sharp point of desperation’s knife had been removed from his back.

When Charlie returned to the laundromat his washing was done.  He removed his laundry and put it into dryers, thumbed in the change necessary to run the machines, and then sat down to await the completion of the process.  He felt entirely different than he had when he began the wash cycle.  His nervous fidgets were gone and in their place was an earnest desire to retrieve and fold his warm, dry and clean laundry and return to his apartment.  Sink, stove and refrigerator needed to be scrubbed and cleaned.  Floors needed to be mopped and carpet vacuumed.  Walls needed scrubbing and toilet – yes, toilet – needed attention.

Charlie knew that he didn’t have all of the supplies that he would need to really do that was was needed, but he was at lest ready to get the job started. When he took an advance on a small bathroom remodel job that he would start on the morrow he could buy the rest of what he needed, and maybe another beer from the pretty bartender at the Barrel of Suds.  He didn’t have to start the job until 10:00 the next morning, which meant that Charlie could work late into the night, cleaning up his apartment and making a statement about his soul as well.  It was time to get busy.

Charlie folded his laundry and stuffed it into the plastic trash bags.  On his way home he passed the Barrel and wondered if the young people discussing philosophy had come to any conclusions.  He wondered if the young woman being wooed by Mr. Mid Life Crisis had escaped his web.  He then wondered if Mr. Mid Life Crisis knew that he, too, was trapped in a web; as much prisoner as weaver?

“So now I’m a philosopher” Charlie said out loud in the cab of his truck, unafraid of anybody overhearing him.  Charlie laughed at the thought, but soon the memory of Stevie’s body, ghastly pale and bruised and puffed up by her hours floating in the cold North Pacific waters, rose up in his head and the paralyzing fingers of despair once again penetrated his chest and squeezed his heart until the pain of it made Charlie quit wanting to breathe.

Charlie turned off of C Street onto 12th Avenue.  Once again he thought of the old bridge as a friend who offered him an answer to his pain.  “Come to Me.  I know what you feel and I won’t judge you.  A step up.  A little jump over the rail.  A fall through space of only twenty or thirty yards.  That’s all it will take.  I’ll enfold you and usher you into a place of peace.  There will be fear, as you struggle to breathe, but when you accept that you can’t, darkness and then the absence of pain will greet you, embrace you and introduce you to peace.  Come to me, my child, and I will give you rest.”

The return of his pain hit Charlie like a hammer.  What had he been thinking?  There was no easy way out of this! “OK, so I met one old shit with potty mouth and a pot belly, and a pretty young woman with evidence of a living, beating human heart.  They live in their world, and I have no good way out of mine.  This is crap.  What does a few bags of clean clothes mean to me?  I’ve screwed up.  I didn’t keep my daughter safe.  I couldn’t comfort my wife.  I had no answers for my son.  I’m a big, fat failure.  No, Walt would say it right; I’m a big fat fucking failure.  Jumping off of the bridge would be a gift to Mo and Jack and the rest of the world, and a release for me.  What the hell am I waiting for?”

Charlie prepared to take a left turn at the next cross street and head for the bridge.  Hope had toyed with him that night, and then pulled the prize out of his reach.  Charlie was through with it all.  Halfway up 12th however Charlie had to stop to allow a family to cross the street.  A middle aged man with a similarly aged wife, two obvious teenage sons and a girl of six or seven years were crossing the street.  They were dressed in their best clothes and walking towards the broad stone stairway that led upward to the large wooden front doors of Saint James Cathedral, an old and impressive church building that seemed out of place in the Vancouver downtown neighborhood that included condos and coffee shops and trendy meeting places.

Charlie watched as the man waved his thanks for Charlie’s having given them right of way.  “Yeah, you’re all Mister Polite now.  Wait until your god takes away one of your sons or your daughter” Charlie growled in his mind.  “You’ll want to get right behind me on that bridge.”

Charlie couldn’t take his eyes off of the family however.  They finished walking across the street and climbed the stairs.  The man pulled open the door and held it for his family as they passed inside.  Charlie continued to stare at the doors through which they had passed until the honk from the vehicle behind his reminded him that he was stopped in the middle of the street.  Impulsively, Charlie pulled into one of the parking slots at the side of the street, and as the impatient motorist passed behind him Charlie sat with the engine idling, debating whether to continue on to the bridge or to go home once again and lie through another empty and miserable night.

Charlie couldn’t remember later how long he sat there.  Two young men and then a single older man mounted the stairs and passed through the big wooden doors of the cathedral.  Charlie watched as the light poured out of the doorway each time a person pulled it open.  The light, like a beacon, penetrated the darkness and projected a sense of warmth and hope into the evening gloom.  Eventually, Charlie exited the truck and walked to the bottom of the stone stairway.  Looking up he saw the brick building soaring high over his head.  Everything directed his attention upwards, as he knew from his college days that cathedrals were supposed to do.  In college he had to learn that as a dry fact in an art history class.  Now he actually felt it.  His attention was drawn upwards and away from the roiling waters a few blocks away, and out of the cold, dark grave where the ashes of Stevie rested a few miles in the opposite direction.

It was almost as if Charlie was not thinking at all, when he mounted the stairs and pushed his way through the thick wooden doors.  Charlie stepped into the warm, nearly silent interior of the cathedral.  There was hardly anyone there other than the family he had previously seen earlier and the party of two young men that had entered before him.  Perhaps the single man was an official of the church, for he was out of his view.  The family was seated near the front of the church, an elderly woman near the middle and the two young men in the corner of the last row.

Charlie stood there for a moment, unsure of what to do next, or even why he was there in the first place.  He looked straight ahead and saw what he assumed is where the person delivering the sermon would stand.  Charlie had only the most scant knowledge about churches and how they were organized, so he didn’t know if it was a pastor or a parson or a priest or whatever else that had the job.  That place was behind a railing and signs advised non-pastors or whatever to not enter that space.

A bank of what seemed to be a couple dozen candles stood in front of the railing and three or four of them were lit.  Charlie didn’t know why, but the warm light of the flickering candles was a comfort to his soul.  He looked beyond the railing and saw that there were niches in the walls there that contained statues of Jesus and somebody else, maybe an angel or something.  Paintings adorned the walls there and a few lamp stands with more substantial candles were placed here and there.  The rest of the interior walls of the cathedral also sported paintings of various religious subjects.  Charlie sat down on the wooden pew in the rear of the building and began to examine the art work from a distance.

As he scanned the room Charlie noticed a row of paintings in identical ornate frames, each with a Roman numeral over it.  The painting closest to him was numbered VIII, and in it Jesus was depicted having fallen to the ground.  The cross was weighing him down, a couple of figures are jeering at him, and a Roman soldier is prodding him to rise up and continue on his way to his death.  Charlie’s interest had been piqued, and he walked across the large room to where picture number I hung, and then walked slowly from one picture to the other, seeing the story of the crucifixion of Jesus from his condemnation to the giving of his tortured and lifeless body to the women who would clean him up and bury him.

  “I guess I’m not the only guy who can have a bad day.” Charlie thought as he stared at the dead body of Jesus.  Mary, Jesus’ mother, was in shock and only beginning to grieve.  “That was a good painter.  That’s how Mo looked when they brought us to Stevie’s body.”  Charlie looked more closely at the body of Jesus and noticed that the painter or painters had not been very faithful to reality in one respect.  Jesus’ wounds showed little if any blood at all.  In fact, it looked like he could have been sleeping, except for the look of sorrow on his face.  Stevie had been beaten up badly by rocks and waves, and possibly nibbles from some fish.

Charlie stood in front of that picture for a little while longer.  In some strange way, knowing that he was not alone in his suffering made a difference.  Sure, Walt and Rachael knew a thing or two about suffering also, but this guy really took it in the shorts.  And if Charlie remembered the story correctly, Jesus had done nothing to deserve what he had gotten, in the same manner that he had not deserved to lose his daughter, his family, and everything else that he once had.

Charlie breathed a sigh of relief as he realized that the claw of desperation had loosened its grip on his heart.  He was not ready to find a pub somewhere and go dancing, but no thought of the bridge and the river troubled his mind either.  Charlie sat down on the wooden pew once again and noticed that several more people had entered while he was focused on the paintings.  It was obvious now that a service was about to begin, and although Charlie appreciated the small measure of peace that he felt here and wanted to see if there was more to be found, he was not ready to be in the middle of a full-blown Catholic mass.  After an older couple walked past him, Charlie stood up and walked down the aisle and out through the wooden door, and into the Vancouver night.

Charlie drove the few blocks that separated him from his apartment with no deviation toward the bridge.  He carried his laundry from the truck into the apartment and put it on the sofa.  As he looked around the apartment he saw that the dirt and grime that had gathered on walls, windows, door handles and everything in general had not gone anywhere.  Charlie felt the urge to clean things up return to him.  Walking through an arch into the tiny kitchen Charlie looked under the sink and found two old sponges and some cleaning products.  he looked at the stained and dirty sink and said “Let’s get some of this shit cleaned up.”